The digital twin as an idea machine

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 is currently making its debut in the production department of Neuenhauser Maschinenbau GmbH in northern Germany: The components of a new gantry system are currently being completed and will shortly soon be delivered to the customer. The dimensions of the design only become apparent in the drawings created by the team led by Jörg Wolf, head of development and design at Neuenhauser: "The plant will transport wooden beams with a length of 13 m, and the gantry is 20 m long," explains Wolf. "Normally, we would set up this system now for the factory acceptance test (FAT) at our facility, but we simply don't have the space." So Neuenhauser tests the plant in advance on a virtual basis – using the digital twin that the company's specialists have developed, based on an integrated software solution from Siemens. "We use it to simulate the complete plant prior to transportation and assembly at the customer's site – and thus prepare commissioning, which we have to complete in 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."

New basis for the entire process

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