An electric razor factory in Drachten, in the north of the Netherlands, is preparing for trials that will help the European industry thrive in increasingly competitive international markets. This factory, run by the consumer electronics company Philips, is participating in a research project funded by the European Union (EU) whose purpose is to encourage manufacturers to use digital twins; that is, virtual factories created with technologies designed to optimize current production processes.
The idea is to use techniques such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotics and technology blockchain to create models of manufacturing processes and identify aspects that can be improved. “The industry is going through a transition phase and digital technologies can help,” says Cecile Girardot, coordinator of the DIMOFAC initiative, running until March 2024: “Digital twins provide real-time data that can show, in the virtual plane, the performance of machines in the real world”.
The European manufacturing sector, with a value of 5,000 million euros and with heavy weights globally in areas such as aviation, steel, automotive or chemical products, must deal with export-oriented manufacturers abroad and with regulations most demanding environmental standards within the EU. To these two underlying challenges must be added the spikes in energy prices following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the supply chain disruptions caused by the covid pandemic two years earlier.
The EU has created a public-private association of 1,150 million euros called Factories of the Future (Factories of the future, in English) to promote research and innovation in the field of production, which makes clear the importance of this issue on the Community political agenda. At stake is the ability of European companies to adapt to what has been called the fourth industrial revolution, or industry 4.0, an era characterized by automation and connectivity.
The virtual factory concept is gaining ground in Europe. The aircraft company Airbus or the electrical equipment expert Schneider Electric are exploring digital twin concepts and setting up virtual production plants. Since it started at the end of 2019, DIMOFAC has developed a system to streamline manufacturing processes called plug-and-produce (plug and produce), which facilitates the reconfiguration of production lines by linking real machinery to their corresponding digital twins.
Thanks to this system, a manufacturer can simulate a new configuration virtually and solve any problems online before installing the equipment in a real factory. Production problems can arise, for example, if recycled raw materials whose properties are not always identical are used, as Girardot, who coordinates European projects on advanced materials and manufacturing at the French research institute CEA-Liten, explains: “In these cases production needs to be adapted. The sooner it is done, the better. The main objective is to reduce reconfiguration times”.
The system plug-and-produce of the project will be tested in five real production plants spread across Europe. In addition to electric razors from the Netherlands, there are aerospace components made by Eirecomposites in Ireland and interactive screens made by Schaltag in Switzerland. The technology is being applied at all five sites and results are expected in the first quarter of 2024. DIMOFAC has been able to bring together a wide range of industry expertise through its 30 partners, including Siemens Industry Software (France), the mechanical engineering company FILL (Austria) and EXOM Engineering (Spain).
Better coordinate design and manufacturing
FIRST, another EU-funded project that has brought the future of digital factories a little closer, has studied how they can increase efficiency in production centers distributed in different locations. The new designs and processes developed by FIRST will facilitate collaboration, according to Lai Xu, coordinator of the initiative that ended in December 2022 after six years of operation. “In the past, manufacturing plants used to be quite isolated,” says Xu, who is also an associate professor at Bournemouth University (UK) and works on business collaboration processes and virtual companies.
According to Xu, the purpose of FIRST was to identify pitfalls and obstacles that could hinder the use of virtual factory technologies and develop strategies to overcome them. The project partners (a total of seven) were manufacturers, companies of software and universities and came from countries such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and China. Xu is optimistic about what digital twins can offer the industry on both a business and environmental level. For example, using a digital model of the entire production process, a company could design a pair of shoes in Paris or Milan and coordinate its manufacture and sale globally.
Making use of technology blockchain, an information technology network could connect all the partners – shops, designers, logistics companies and manufacturers – and send them information about what is needed, where and when. “The custom shoe can be designed in one place and manufactured in another, resulting in a more efficient and flexible manufacturing process and less environmental impact,” Xu says. With virtual factory technologies there is no need to play all or nothing. Manufacturers can adopt some aspects to improve processes without having to commit to a comprehensive implementation. This point may be important for many small and medium-sized companies in the European manufacturing sector, which do not have the necessary resources to completely transform their systems.
Virtual factory technologies can also help companies manage complex machinery maintenance processes more efficiently, with the cost savings that this entails. “Sensors around the machines collect data that makes it possible to schedule when an engineer should be sent to repair them,” Xu says. As proof of the growing importance of virtual manufacturing technologies, the FIRST coordinator advances that the consortium is seeking funding from the EU and from different countries to make new advances in this field.
The research described in this article has been supported by EU funds. Article originally published in Horizonthe European Union Magazine for Research and Innovation.
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Source: EL PAIS