IoT-powered Virtual Manufacturing is the Next Big Thing

The industrial revolution underway driven by the effects of changing technology, market conditions, and consumer needs is forcing companies to strive for greater efficiency in product quality and service more than ever before.  Competitive advantage rests solely with those firms that embrace state-of-the-art technologies that help them drive down the cost of production right from concept, design, manufacturing, to marketing, while optimizing the quality and shortening the time-to-market.  It is therefore imperative that, as stated by Gautam Doshi of PQIS (Plant Quarantine Information System) at the recently concluded IMTMA (Indian Machine Tool Manufacturers’ Association – a national association of machine tool and allied equipment manufacturers) symposium on smart manufacturing, companies optimize product and process design by utilizing the benefits of advanced manufacturing practices such as virtual manufacturing to be competitive and innovative in the marketplace.

Virtual manufacturing is the confluence of human-computer interfaces with virtual reality to model, simulate, and optimize the operations of manufacturing facilities for varying purposes, such as cost, quality, cycle time, producibility, flexibility, to list a few.  Where virtual manufacturing was first used as a means to design and test machine tools, it has evolved over time to include product, process, and production systems powered by Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)-enabled technologies, such as virtual reality, high-speed networking, rapid prototyping, CAD, and performance-driven 3D modeling applications and simulation interfaces.  The scope of virtual manufacturing ranges from the integration of the design activities, such as drafting, element analysis, and prototyping, to nearly all phases of product lifecycle, such as planning, operations, and control.  There are many benefits to using virtual reality technologies in business operations.  Virtual manufacturing and virtual analysis technologies not only help manufacturers evaluate materials, visualize products, and optimize production processes as well as product quality and reliability in an effective way, but also enable them to assess the operational stability and integration between various product development processes and systems in real time.

Process Simulation Model

Process Simulation Model, Source: Siemens

The evolution of production technology integrated with IIoT-aided manufacturing practices has significantly changed traditional manufacturing industries, with majority of the manufacturing activities now being performed as information processing within computers.  In comparison with earlier days using traditional technology, only a drawing of the product can be seen before it becomes real – making it difficult to identify the product’s functional and operational inefficiencies before the actual production cycle begins; however, in modern-day manufacturing using advanced technologies such as additive manufacturing a complete 3D model of the product can be created in agreement with the reality without creating any physical prototype.  Also, in old-fashioned manufacturing the requirement of a large amount of non-recyclable materials to make complex prototype/model of the product results in increased material overhead, but with the help of latest 3D modeling technologies a simulated prototype/model of the product – one that possesses the same physical characteristics as the real product – can be designed and created in short time with minimal parts cost and labor time, making the manufacturing more agile and effective.

Virtual manufacturing technologies have been applied in many industries such as automobile, manufacturing, aeronautics, astronautics, railway locomotives, health care, communication, education, and so on.  Depending on the application domains, virtual manufacturing can be classified into three groups:

  • Product and process design: Based on the product and process design aspects, virtual manufacturing can be subcategorized into design-centered, production-centered, and control-centered.
  • System integration: Depending on the integration features contained, a virtual manufacturing system can be clustered into four different subsystems such as real physical system, real information system, virtual physical system, and virtual information system.
  • Functionality: Based on the functional requirements of various manufacturing processes, virtual manufacturing applications can be used for virtual prototyping, virtual commissioning, virtual machining, virtual inspection, virtual assembly, virtual operational system, etc.

As the manufacturers across the globe increasingly move toward digital manufacturing, time is of the essence for Indian manufacturing, as stated by Mr. Doshi in his concluding session, to adopt next-generation manufacturing practices comprising computer-based emerging technologies such as 3D simulation, visualization, PLM, etc., to stay ahead of their customers’ needs and to thrive in this age of constantly changing digital marketplace.  Though India is at a nascent stage when it comes to embracing digital transformation, recent reports indicate that more and more Indian manufacturers, citing the overall cost advantages and economies of scale that can be gained in the long run, are geared toward facing the challenges of changing business environment in the country by speeding up the process of modernizing their manufacturing facilities with digital manufacturing systems.  This exemplifies the growing demand for modern technologies from various end user industries and the investment choices available in each of the manufacturing sectors in India.