Digital twin: When the smart factory is close at hand

Here’s something new: A manufacturer of clamping technology and gripping systems is using digital twins to help plant manufacturers and users to increase their competitiveness. Digital twins enable the virtual simulation and testing of all process steps, from engineering and plant commissioning to performance.

Machine and plant manufacturers, suppliers, and component manufacturers worldwide are all facing the same challenge: They need to offer their customers a more varied product range that’s increasingly customized and also launch new products more and more frequently. This requires highly flexible plants that can be quickly and easily upgraded for new generations of parts.


Marcel Nagel, head of Product & Portfolio Management for Digital Products & Product-Related Services at Schunk GmbH & Co. KG, is convinced that digitalized engineering processes with no media discontinuities are of primary importance in this context. “While a plant is still producing the current generation of parts, the plant’s digital image can be used to perform a simulation to identify the effects of the next generation on the plant concept.”

Smart factory within reach

Customers of the global market leader in clamping technology and gripping systems in Lauffen am Neckar, Germany – including plant manufacturers, integrators, and users from a variety of industries – also know this. “They’re coming to us more and more as a component manufacturer with their need for virtual plannability, and we’re taking this into account,” says Nagel.


Schunk has already been using CAD models of components in mechanical and electrical design for many years. Now the company relies on digital twins for virtual commissioning and beyond. “As a manufacturing company, we’ve been developing a state-of-the-art IT environment to prepare us for digitalization and to design smart data management. Like our customers, we’re striving for our own smart, virtual factory with a consistently digitalized value chain. This is how we’re creating added value that we can pass on to our customers,” explains Nagel.



Our customers are increasingly demanding virtual plannability, and we’re taking this into account.
Marcel Nagel, Head of Product & Portfolio Management for digital Products & product-related Services, Schunk GmbH & Co. KG

Product, production, and performance

In this respect, Siemens is an important partner for Schunk. In 2015 Schunk was looking for a manufacturer of simulation software for virtual engineering in a benchmarking process. According to Nagel, only Siemens offered a consistent, end-to-end system across all phases of the product lifecycle. Using the Mechatronics Concept Designer (MCD), Schunk has since been systematically working on the digitalization of product, production, and performance for its customers.


The TIA Portal with its function blocksPLCSIM Advanced for the targeted simulation of controllersand the cloud-based, open IoT operating system MindSphere are also playing a significant role. “The tremendous potential of digitalization is still incalculable and covers all phases of the product lifecycle with no media discontinuities, from engineering, on-site commissioning, and operation of the plant at the customers’ premises to service and maintenance,” says Nagel.

Consistent, end-to-end images of all product lifecycle phases

Specifically, the digital twins’ library model of the standardized mechatronic gripper system components in the MCD simulation environment is first used to seamlessly model the control environment in PLCSIM Advanced using TIA Portal function blocks. This makes it possible to simulate production as a whole and therefore enables the virtual commissioning of the plant, adapted to the particular target controller, before the real commissioning. As a result, errors, risks, and expense can be eliminated or significantly reduced during the real commissioning.


Once the plant is up and running, its performance is also virtually modeled, thereby creating the third part of the digital twin in MindSphere. Schunk has already had some initial experience in this area, as well: With Schunk Electronic Solutions GmbH, which manufactures depaneling machines, the company has a machine manufacturer in its corporate group, making Schunk its own “lead user.” These experiences will mainly benefit the increasingly important service business area.

Over the medium term, Schunk will equip all its components to record specific process data using appropriate sensors. This data can then be analyzed by MindSphere apps. “We’re certain that this will enable us to offer our customers genuine added value,” says Nagel: for example, in the area of maintenance. “Thanks to this data analysis, plants will require maintenance less often – in other words, only when it’s actually necessary.”


Consistent, end-to-end digitalization is creating even more opportunities. “In the simulation environment, it’s possible to identify target values – like the gripping force in a specific application – that we can then compare with the actual values in operation,” says Nagel. “If the two don’t match, the customer knows that something has to be changed and so can prevent plant disruptions or even breakdowns.”

Assembled starter kit

In addition to the hardware components, Schunk also offers interested customers a software “starter kit” with a component library of digital twins and support for their use in the MCD, providing everything from a single source. Using a demo module, these customers can easily learn and test if and to what extent a virtual simulation can actually reduce their engineering effort and whether it would be worthwhile for them to purchase the full software version.

Smart gripper

With the advance of digitalization at Schunk, it isn’t just the engineering that’s changing. The components themselves are also changing and, with the use of Edge computing – for example, Industrial Edge – are becoming “smart grippers.” In addition to and in conjunction with cloud computing, and thanks to corresponding hardware and software, time-critical process data that’s obtained, for example, from the gripper, can be processed decentrally and directly on site.


“This allows the customer to immediately detect whether a fault is pending and take corrective action,” says Nagel.

Along with Edge computing, he relies on artificial intelligence (AI). Using a camera, neural networks enable smart components to self-learn different, changing objects with no preprogramming. “This is an attractive concept, and we see tremendous potential in AI for ongoing optimization of the gripping processes.” The smart factory is no longer a remote possibility: It’s already within reach.


Picture credits: Siemens AG / Schunk GmbH & Co. KG

Schunk was founded in 1945 as a machine shop and is now a global technology leader in gripping systems and clamping technology. The company is headquartered in Lauffen am Neckar, Germany. With 3,400 employees in nine plants and 34 subsidiaries as well as sales partners in more than 50 countries, Schunk has an extensive market presence. With over 11,000 standard components, Schunk offers the world’s largest portfolio of gripping and clamping technology. The company’s customers include a “who’s who” of machine and plant manufacturers, robotics and automation companies, assembly handling firms, and all major automotive brands and their suppliers.

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