Virtually yours

Computers are not merely the province of the design and manufacturing process – they are also having a major impact on the planning, and even the running of our factories. Ben Hargreaves reports.

CAD, CFD, CAM, PLM. The list of acronyms goes on. Software tools to aid in product design and manufacture are now ubiquitous – forming an essential part of the knowledge base of engineers and designers.

As hardware power increases, and the sophistication and flexibility of software continues to grow, theories abound on the likelihood of products being completely developed within the confines of the matt grey boxes that dominate our existence. And if that were not enough, all this is supposed to happen without the need to test physical prototypes.

Whether, for instance, the entirely virtually designed and engineered car will ever become reality is a moot point. Software companies, of course, would have you believe that it will – and sooner rather than later. But there’s another area in which computers are making a considerable impact that receives less attention: in the actual design, planning and running of factories.

Dassault Systèmes is best known for its high-end CAD package CATIA, but its subsidiary Delmia has a product specifically targeted at factory planning and design: Quest. ‘It is a 3D simulation package that allows you to create a virtual factory – including all the systems and processes concerning how that factory is intended to operate, the shift patterns, production lines and machine downtime,’ explained Tracy Doran, UK technical manager for Delmia. ‘Over time that model will mimic the events as they occur in that facility. At the end you get some data back on the way the factory will run.’

Rockwell Automation is also heavily involved in digital factory simulation. Its software, Arena, is a discrete event simulation package used in many industries to simulate business processes. ‘If you don’t have a factory you can create a virtual representation of it and see how it will work before you get into the expense of starting to build,’ said Vivek Bapat, simulation products manager at Rockwell Software in the US.

According to both Doran and Bapat, their products are most commonly used to model the functioning of a plant before any building work takes place. Said Doran: ‘If a company has a greenfield site and wants to lay out a new factory, it would turn to Quest to check that the layout hangs together. The software takes out all the risks associated with capital investment.’

The scope of Quest and Arena also extends to examining the potential of new workflow plans. ‘With an existing facility,’ said Bapat, ‘instead of making changes to the actual production lines, and disrupting the existing flow and affecting production, simulation allows you to see how any changes would work before they are made.’

In the UK aluminium smelter, FE Mottram has been using Quest to improve logistics and production processes at its plant in Congleton, Cheshire. Mottram was initially looking for a solution to sort out some problems with logistics and traffic on site. ‘We decided we needed to look at the company from afar,’ said managing director Mike Dines, ‘to revisit it and look at everything we should be doing from the point of view of personnel, planning, organisation and layout.’

Logistical problems had been compounded by the piecemeal way in which Mottram’s site had grown and been added to over the years. ‘Our site has been bought in four separate pieces since the early 1980s,’ said Dines. ‘If you had started with a blank sheet of paper you would have engineered the site in a totally different manner.’

Rather than building a bay and having to knock it down a few years later because it was in the wrong place, Dines was looking for a more efficient way of solving the difficulties. He approached Business Link Cheshire for help, which suggested he get in touch with AMTRI, a specialist manufacturing consultancy. Its consultants used Quest to model the plant’s activities. Its simulation of the site – an entire week’s production data was fed into the package – gave Dines and his colleagues an overview of the way in which the plant was operating.

‘The results were a real eye-opener,’ said Dines. ‘We could see where production moved from and to, and all the processes that took place such as the flow of materials.’

Using Quest, Dines’s team could simulate projected changes to the site structure before implementing them, changes that solved some of the logistics and traffic problems. But the softwarecould not fix everything. In the virtual world, reality eventually bites. ‘None of the alternative scenarios presented by the software were ideal, because we weren’t starting with a blank sheet of paper: we had to work with what we had.’

‘There are fundamental bits of kit that are still in the wrong place,’ said Dines. ‘It would just cost too much money to move them. But we’ve managed to improve the flow of materials into a more logical order.’

An interesting point, however, was that the simulation also performed a preventive function: what it stopped Dines from doing was just as important as the changes that were introduced. ‘Quest stopped us investing in things that would have proved fruitless. In a sense what it stopped us doing was of bigger benefit than the changes that were made.’

Dines has since drawn up a plan in which Quest will be used to address every aspect of Mottram’s business, including production methods. The aim in the next 18 months is to use the software to reduce internal transport movements by about 50 per cent, resulting in massive savings on fuel costs, improved efficiency and a better health and safety regime.

‘We are constantly updating the Quest model,’ said Dines. ‘If a member of our team has an idea concerning how to improve things we drop it into the simulation and you can see whether it’s viable, because it shows the impact on all the downstream activities and how things will change.’

Simulation tools such as Quest and Arena can have a huge impact on the way an industrial business operates, and their scope extends far wider than processing. According to Rockwell’s Bapat, they are no longer the province of shopfloor engineers but have made the transition to the boardroom, as bosses realise the enormous potential for cost saving inherent in their use.

‘When this technology first came out 10 or 15 years ago it was really used as a pure engineering tool,’ says Bapat. ‘It was kind of hidden from the senior management. But because people have realised that it can transform their businesses and save them a lot of money it now has visibility at a much more senior level. Vendors are currently pushing the tools much harder at the senior management of companies – that’s been the big change in the past three or four years.

‘We used to talk about the digital factory as something for the future: well, the future is here already.’