The digital twin as an idea machine

Key Visual Reference Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH

What began as a project to aid virtual commissioning now brings benefits in many areas of development and design. In cooperation with Siemens, Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH developed a digital twin for several use cases and now benefits from comprehensive options for simulation, verification, and modeling.

A new methodology recently made its debut in the Production Department of Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH in northern Germany: A new gantry system was tested completely virtually – using a digital twin that the company's specialists developed, based on an integrated software solution from Siemens. "The system will transport wooden beams with a length of 13 m, and the gantry is 20 m long," explains Jörg Wolf, Head of the Development and Design Department at Neuenhauser. "Normally, we would set up this kind of system for the factory acceptance test (FAT) at our facility, but we simply don't have the space." Therefore, the dimensions of the gantry system are only visible in the design drawings. "Instead, we simulated the complete system at the customer's site prior to transportation and assembly and thus prepared for commissioning, which we had to complete within a very short time," explains Wolf.

Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH

Founded in 1955, the Neuenhauser Group is a group of independent companies operating in the fields of mechanical and plant engineering, environmental technology, the textile industry, the steel and non-ferrous metal industry, conventional contract manufacturing, compressor and tank construction, the clamping elements business unit and automation. Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH forms the umbrella for various business units from the mechanical and plant engineering sector. At the headquarters in Neuenhaus, Germany, central departments also provide support to the business units, including the technical design pool and the electrical engineering department.

Step by step approach to the digital twin

This pilot project was preceded by several phases, in which Neuenhauser evaluated the possibilities of using the digital twin in the company. "Initially, the main driving factors were the reduction of commissioning times on site and a greater degree of standardization," explains Jens Elsner, head of the electrical department at Neuenhauser. "But the continuous improvement of the company process in Neuenhaus was also an important aspect for the team," adds Jörg Wolf, and continues: "No two plants are the same – and digital tools are simply indispensable for quickly testing and verifying new concepts."

To evaluate which solution would offer the greatest benefit for this project, Neuenhauser turned to Siemens. "We mainly use SIMATIC controllers in our machines here, so it was obvious to go with Siemens for the digital twin as well," explains Elsner. This is where Siemens offers an integrated concept with standardized engineering, a wide range of automation options, and excellent local and global support," continues Elsner.

Cloud environment for easy project entry

First of all, in a workshop, the capabilities of the digital twin were tested jointly with Siemens in a cloud environment in a software-in-the-loop (SiL) setup using SIMATIC S7-PLCSIM Advanced, SIMIT and NX Mechatronics Concept Designer. On the one hand, this eliminated the expense for Neuenhauser of installing the systems in its own infrastructure. On the other hand, the cloud environment made it possible to involve a larger group of participants in the project from the outset, even at mobile workstations or working from home, making the project much more flexible. And last but not least, the cloud will continue to provide the company with a test environment for new applications in future. 

Through this type of collaboration, Neuenhauser also benefited directly from the know-how of Siemens experts from the regional application center, who not only organized and conducted the workshop, but also accompanied Neuenhauser throughout the remainder of the project.

Following this project phase, several use cases were defined for the proof of concept. "We selected these use cases to cover a broad range of both mechanical design and electrical engineering, to be sufficiently complex and typical of our plants," says Elsner. With support from Siemens, the team at Neuenhauser was able to implement these use cases very quickly, as Wolf confirms: "Even after just a few days, we were able to recreate machine functions realistically. And the management was also quickly won over by this approach: "After fifteen minutes at the most it was clear to everyone that the digital twin would really benefit us in many areas."

"Our systems are shipped all over the world, so the cost of on-site commissioning is a key competitive factor."

Jens Elsner, Head of Electrical Department, Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH

Provider of ideas for development and implementation

This enthusiasm stems from the fact that the digital twin offers great advantages not only for virtual commissioning. "At Neuenhauser, we are looking at a number of other areas where simulation adds real value," says Wolf. "Meanwhile the first applications are already taking place here, for example in the evaluation of a continuous conveyor for yarn bobbins – in this case, we tested on the model whether we could achieve a certain cycle time and verified that the concept works. Another case emerged during the trial phase, in which we simply tested a conversion procedure. You can see how the new opportunities immediately lead to whole new ideas – extending all the way to new tools for sales and acquisition."

At the same time, further employees are gradually being trained in the use of the software – and the level of interest is high, as Wolf and Elsner agree: "When we asked who else wanted to become involved, a number of colleagues immediately came forward." The motivation is also noticeable in the cooperation on a daily basis, according to Elsner: "The model also makes communication between departments easier – not only the draft is visible, but also the function and the thinking behind it."

Put to the test during on-site changeover

At the operator of the new gantry system, it became apparent how well the digital twin supports commissioning on site: The prefabricated home manufacturer Gussek-Haus uses it to automate the transportation of square timber to a joinery line for CNC-controlled timber cutting and a cutting machine, which is also new. Over the years, the existing joinery line had increasingly reached its capacity limits, so Gussek-Haus decided to invest in expanding the timber cutting line, explains Marc Siepker, Head of Production at Gussek-Haus in Nordhorn: "We manufacture our houses using wood panel construction and try to keep the degree of prefabrication as high as possible. Timber cutting plays a key role: If the process stalls here, it only takes a few days and then our production is at a standstill." That's why the construction and commissioning of the new gantry system was highly time-critical – "like open-heart surgery", recalls Siepker. The new gantry system was constructed parallel to the existing transport system. Then it was time for the changeover, when the old gantry system was dismantled and the new gantry system was integrated into the process and commissioned. This is where it became apparent how well the system was prepared for use – "apart from a few minor details, we were almost surprised by how smoothly it all went", says Siepker. It was also possible for actual production to be resumed without major difficulties: "Of course the new plant still had to be run in, but many parameters were already preset due to the digital twin."

For his colleague Matthias Kwade, Head of the Design/Prefabrication Department at Gussek-Haus, the model was also a good tool for supporting the progress of the project: "Even without the physical machine, we could see which of our requirements had already been implemented and what the handling of the new machine would look like." Marc Siepker also draws a very positive conclusion: "This was a novel project in many respects – firstly because we had the unusual requirement that two cutting lines had to be served by one gantry system, and secondly because the system was tested and optimized based on a digital model. And ultimately we have to say that this worked very well." Since then, the gantry system has proven itself in day-to-day operation. Together with the new cutting line, Gussek-Haus has been able to more than double capacity in timber cutting. This means that the company is now in an even better position to help its customers obtain their dream home and to continue its growth.

New basis for the entire process

At Neuenhauser, Jörg Wolf draws a thoroughly positive conclusion: "The particularly convincing feature for me is the holistic benefit – this is not just a tool for virtual commissioning, but a digital twin that enables us to improve processes at many points." And last but not least, there is the gantry system which is acting as a pilot project. On this point, Wolf adds: "Admittedly, our designers have more work to do initially – after all, the model has to be maintained. Therefore, we may not yet be enjoying the full benefit during the first project. But we can already work very differently and deal with project challenges because we are becoming more efficient across all processes. We will expand these effects in subsequent projects."

"Instead of building a physical model, which sometimes takes weeks, you test a new component or function on the screen and then get a result in a matter of days."

Jörg Wolf, Head of Development and Design, Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH