A Working model
When an employee of Kautex Textron talks about machine commissioning, he reveals a real challenge: The new machine has to be up and running immediately and must operate at the highest level of productivity from day one. At the same time, the operators need training on the machine – and this takes time. A digital twin for both training and commissioning provides a resolution to this dilemma.
Which is why, an employee explains, KAUTEX TEXTRON GMBH & CO. KG staff now receive a virtual visitor from time to time. He is senior operator for new products and was the project lead for the development of the digital twin. “This means bringing an interactive and fully functional training environment to the staff on our sites so that they are able to learn how to operate and service a new piece of equipment in situations that are as realistic as possible, and to be able to do this even when the real machine is already installed, commissioned, or operational,” he explains. Previously, training staff to use a new machine required time on the physical machine, “and that conflicted with the requirement of having a maximally productive machine,” says the senior operator. “That was why we started looking for alternative solutions that would help us train operators and service staff with lower costs and also lower risk.”
KAUTEX TEXTRON GMBH & CO. KG
Kautex Textron GmbH & Co. KG is part of Textron Inc., the parent company of numerous globally recognized businesses. Kautex Textron is one of the 100 largest automotive suppliers in the world in terms of sales volume, and a leading manufacturer of blow-molded fuel systems for both hybrid and conventionally fueled vehicles, selective catalytic reduction systems, clear vision systems, engine camshafts, and plastic industrial packaging solutions. The company is headquartered in Bonn, Germany, and has more than 30 facilities in 14 countries.
The digital twin: an interactive, realistic plant model
The senior operator immediately identified plant modeling as a very viable approach to resolving this challenge: “When we started the project, we were already talking to Siemens about potential applications for their digital plant twin solutions. But we still had some initial concerns about if and how to create a plant simulation that would feel and act as much like the real plant as possible.” Consequently, KAUTEX TEXTRON decided to first design and implement a proof of concept together with Siemens, using a typical piece of production equipment that is used to mold plastic fuel containers. Experts from Siemens performed the basic modeling for the machine – “achieving the first project milestone by modeling the bare PLC cycle,” as he recalls. Following that, users were brought into project discussions to specify their requirements and provide feedback. “This way, we moved from the bare PLC cycle to having a process cycle that incorporates all equipment movements, fault situations, and the behavior of the work in process.”
The simulation interacts with the physical environment
The senior operator and his team had to overcome several challenges on the way: a high level of complexity in the machine model; having to couple the behavior model of the machine with the model for the robot; and a very short time frame for the project, which had to be ready for presentation to management on a set date. “We benefitted greatly from working with a strategic partner in this situation,” says the senior operator. “For example, the SIMIT simulation software already includes modules for all Siemens automation systems, and this greatly reduced the effort needed to create the behavior model.”
The behavior model in SIMIT is the node that integrates data from the SIMATIC S7-PLCSIM Advanced virtual PLC and the Mechatronics Concept Designer for modeling the physical plant behavior, and it also integrates the robot model into the plant simulation via an interface. “Another challenge was creating a simulation for machine operation that would mimic the actual operation as closely as possible,” the senior operator adds. “We found an excellent solution for including this in the simulation environment, and additionally we can connect to physical SIMATIC HMI systems via our SIMATIC IPC.”
For one specific commissioning at a site in Japan, we were able to save 40% of the on-site work. This adds to the business case.Senior Operator, New Products, KAUTEX TEXTRON GMBH & CO. KG
Winning users and management to the cause
All these efforts have paid off, says the senior operator: a number of users have already been trained using the digital twin, “and the teams are really enthusiastic about how close the model is to the physical machine and about the level of detail we are able to provide.” The focus of the application is on training production staff, but the simulation environment also adds value during commissioning. “You have to invest in creating the model during a project – but you can reap considerable benefits later. For one specific commissioning at a site in Japan, we were able to save 40% of the on-site work and about €10,000 in travel expenses, and this adds to the business case.”
In addition to the users, the digital twin has also charmed KAUTEX TEXTRON management. “When we presented the model and demonstrated how we were able to interact with a running PLC and how the components work together, there was an immediate recognition of the potential benefits and opportunities. We have full support from our management to use the model wherever possible,” confirms the senior operator.
Stimulating new applications
The senior operator can relate to how the digital twin can spark such a “wow” moment: “I’ve been working in the field of simulation for 20 years. Yet when I see how we can connect our model with a 3D application so that I can work and move within a robot cell in a completely safe environment and actually see how the robot moves and match this with the PLC program, I am absolutely thrilled.” He already has ideas for other areas of application, “such as remote assistance for machine service. I could support service staff by highlighting the location of a fault in the model and displaying this in a HoloLens without having to call expert support.” But first, the senior operator and his team will be busy rolling out the simulation environment. “Following Germany and the United States, we will next introduce the digital twin on a broad basis in Asia. We would also like to include our suppliers in the model development,” he says and adds with a slight grin: “And you can always work on refining the model, so our job is never finished.”