Success model Simulation: Simulation first – more efficient automation later

Is simulation useful or merely a gimmick?

A question that many ask themselves when they first deal with this topic. For blue automation GmbH, simulation and virtual commissioning have been opening doors in talking to customers for quite some time. Because the digital approach minimizes risks and can reduce actual commissioning time by more than half.

Introducing more functionality while significantly reducing the current cycle time, track quality and become more productive – those were the objectives of a supplier to the automotive industry when they expanded an existing packaging plant for pump parts. And these were also the requirements given to the automation service provider and system integrator, blue automation GmbH in Rennerod, Germany. In particular, an additional torque control including a reliable IO/NIO strategy had to be integrated while realizing an efficient operation of the entire plant. The company came up with the following solution: Two interacting handling robots that pick up the parts from trays, place them first in a cleaning station and then in two testing stations, separate the bad from the good parts, and only place the latter into the packaging tubes of the end customer. Moreover, the operating concept of the entire system also needed a makeover

blue automation GmbH

The blue automation GmbH started out as a one-man show in 2013 and has developed into a globally acting automation provider and system integrator. With an engineering team of more than 30 employees in Rennerod, Germany, a branch in India, an office in China and an affiliate in the United States, the service portfolio for machine manufacturers ranges from hardware planning over software engineering for PLC, drive and visualization systems to robot engineering all the way to simulation and virtual commissioning. Customers include companies in the automotive, packaging, pharmaceutical and chemical, food and beverages industries as well as environmental engineering. 




From left: Thomas Grahl, Managing Director, and Kevin Spörl, Head of Virtual Commissioning at blue automation GmbH

Simulation in automation - Start early: Potential recognized and invested

For the specialists from blue automation, another project pre-destined for advance simulation including virtual commissioning. Thomas Grahl, Managing Director, and software developer Kevin Spörl realized three years ago that the time had come for digitalization of plants on a PC. Both had recognized the inherent potential and wanted to seize it. A test version of the NX Mechatronics Concept Designer (MCD) from Siemens was able to beat out the stiff competition as the system of choice. The focus of the selection: How functional, flexible and open is the approach? The NX MCD was able to score especially with regard to collision analysis and kinematics. Even peripheral aspects, such as support capacity, globality and future prospects were relevant for the decision. The easy integration into the Totally Integrated Automation Portal (TIA Portal) engineering framework and additional tools from Siemens ultimately determined the selection. Both agree that "Siemens has been and is offering us the best overall solution." 

Since then, blue automation has had a lot of experience with different setups and is creating ever more complex simulations. The verdict is that the more complex the system, the greater the benefits. Convinced beneficiaries are machine manufacturers from different industries, increasingly in the automotive industry. Virtual commissioning as well as simulation in other phases of the life cycle can be increasingly found in the requirement specifications of the automotive industry to protect processes at an early stage.

Scalable scenarios (for all requirements)

Through the interaction of the kinematic model in NX MCD, including robot paths in this case, and the PLC program in the virtual SIMATIC Controller S7-PLCSIM Advanced, motion sequences can be tested, optimized and plants can be commissioned virtually. Just as SIMATIC controllers, SINAMICS converters and SIMOTICS servomotors must also be integrated as software and/or hardware-in-the-loop and can be simulated very realistically using proven technology objects. Using the SIMIT simulation environment and standardized interfaces, additional controllers and robot controllers from leading manufacturers can be easily integrated. Even complex heterogeneous solutions can be examined in detail this way. Operator control and monitoring can also be simulated with a digital or real SIMATIC HMI (Human Machine Interface) device – a smart alternative for operator training outside of the production plant.

"The initial added work pays off and offers an actual added value in each individual case. With our expertise in simulation, we arrive at high-quality, fail-safe programs and plants faster."

Thomas Grahl, Manager Director blue automation GmbH

Optimizing using the digital twin

The digital twin is a virtual image of the plant to be automated, generated from 3D CAD data. Transferred into the NX Mechatronics Concept Designer and "made kinematic", which means provided with physical properties in essential parts and made "traversable" digitally, complex motion sequences can be executed, analyzed and harmonized in the model. Without running the risk of having parts collide with one another and be damaged. In the usual development process, parts would have to be manufactured, installed and tested, sometimes in multiple loops. This entails long product development or downtimes resulting in loss of production, including in follow-up processes.

"In the simulation we created in the current project, we were able to finely adjust the interaction and work distribution of the two robots to ensure a faster, more stable and collision-free process."

Kevin Spörl,  Head of Virtual Commissioning at blue automation GmbH

This also resulted in adjustments to the gripper design that most likely would have been discovered much later using the traditional approach. This mechanical-kinematic safeguarding alone is often worth the effort because it shows issues early on which static views cannot reveal. Especially in the early phases of the life cycle of new projects does simulation create trust and gives both sides more protection because development risks are recognized and minimized.

In this specific case, the objectives of maximum process safety, quality and productivity could be fully achieved. The cycle time could be reduced from more than 40 seconds to less than 20 seconds, basically less than half. And only IO-tested parts are supplied to the customer.

Simulation in automation - safer and requiring less time

In addition, the advantages of simulation of the automation solution at the model are added. The first one being a clearly structured and very mature program to start the actual commissioning at the user. This saves a lot of testing work and late program changes under pressure, resulting in a faster start of production. "Our commissioning engineers enter the often-tumultuous final phase feeling very confident," says Thomas Grahl. With this project, even the robot gripper that was optimized in the simulation has worked perfectly from the very beginning, which, according to in-house robot specialists, typically required mechanical fine tuning. 


All in all, it has reduced the actual commissioning time of the plant by more than half. 

And once more convinced a critical customer. In the future, joint projects are always going to be implemented including advance simulation and virtual commissioning. A first follow-up project has already started.