Digital Factory Scenario 2030: Riding to Reality

A company that specializes in producing virtual prototypes of products and their related production processes is asked to design a car seat that can double as an independent, autonomous vehicle. Working closely with the customer, machine manufacturers and suppliers, engineers design and test every aspect of the new product and its production line in the virtual world—to the very point where it can be translated into reality.

By 2030 manufacturers will be able to move from idea to finished product in a fraction of the time that is now required. The reason: even the most complex products—and their associated production processes—will be designed and tested to perfection in the virtual world.

If you can describe it, we can design it.” That’s our motto. We’re a mid-sized company that specializes in industrial simulations. Example: Two months ago a major automotive manufacturer came to us with a request that forced us to put our thinking caps into high gear. They wanted us to come up with a robotic car seat that could detach itself with the user in it, plot a course through a mall or airport, be operated based on verbal or internet commands and/or joystick controls, be capable of traveling up to ten miles and, if necessary, be able to return to its home vehicle on its own or be sent on independent errands. Deadline: 60 days for a production-compatible virtual prototype.

When my boss asked me to take charge of the project, all I could say was “Wow!” Our engineers were on the road—Dubai, Paris. You name it. But hey, what else is new? I assembled a team of specialists and alerted everyone to the new file I had opened in our online project database. The file, which I called “XtraScoot,” included all of the customer’s specifications, as well as 3D interactive models of the vehicles it would be an option on.

No sooner was the file activated, than a program automatically began scouring all of our suppliers’ databases for everything from self-inflating, luminescent tires to special-order scooter wedge brake systems. Within minutes a list of potentially-applicable components, complete with specs, prices, availability, earliest delivery dates, and 3D interactive models had been assembled. This information, along with everything each team developed, was instantly available to everyone on an interactive basis using a secure data backbone. Design was divided along classic lines: mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and software and automation experts, plus of course production planners. But as the design took shape, a mechatronic program integrated the data from these specialists into a holistic functional object. When a few lines of software were altered, for instance, the guys working on related mechanical and electrical systems could see how the change affected their work.

Automatic Assembly of a Virtual Prototype

Of course, a lot of the stuff was strictly off-the-shelf-easy. The vision, radar and navigation components, for instance, were standard issue for every shopping cart on earth. After all, why go to the trouble of pushing a heavy cart if you can get one to follow you? But airports, for instance, are more complicated. The customer wanted XtraScoot to be able to take users through millimeter wave security checks without even having to stop, meaning that every part had to be wave transparent—in other words, made of bio-plastics, composites, etc.

As design of the product’s virtual prototype proceeded, programs automatically assembled a corresponding virtual prototype of the production process that would produce it. This included a kind of marketplace in which associated machines would offer their services and exchange information regarding materials logistics and cost optimization with banks of 3D printers and external suppliers in real time. Long ago, when this sort of thing was still years away, people referred to it as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Photographically realistic functional digital models of robotic arms and weld guns, complete with hardware and software specifications, could be called up on each engineer’s display device, interlinked, and tested for their ability to automatically exchange data. Our production planners supervised this, cross-checking the programs’ suggestions with plant energy requirements, as well as scheduling, cost, service, and product lifecycle management considerations. Analyzing the simulations of the seat’s production line, the designers were guided by expert programs that helped them to choose the machines and software that would best fit the process as a whole in terms of its lifetime value for the customer.

Production machine manufacturers got involved in the process too, as did suppliers of parts for the seats. Specialized nozzles for spraying self-cleaning coatings on parts, optical analyses of machined surfaces, audio analyses of mini-motor sound levels…one company after another optimized parts or programs by tapping into our centralized file, conducting simulations, and upgrading their respective data to the point that it could be flawlessly reproduced in the real world. What’s more, every part was designed to be recycled, and every alteration was automatically documented.

Virtual prototypes of mechanical assemblies were tested, as were the machining steps required to produce them. Nothing was left to chance. After 60 days—just as the customer had requested—virtual prototypes of the seat, its production process, and its supply chain, including packaging and delivery schedule, were ready for simulation. The prototypes were, for all practical purposes, identical in every detail to what would ultimately be built.

Product Testing in a Walk-in Website

The customer’s project manager, a smooth-talking fellow by the name of Carson who had been involved in the product and production development process from the word go, visited our walk-in Website—a prototype service in its own right that uses 3D virtual presence software to create the illusion of real time interactivity in a simulated environment.

Once in the “site,” Carson examined the seat’s appearance in one of his company’s top-of-the-line cars; he walked along the production line studying the rapid movements of robotic arms, noting the hum of conveyer belts, the crisp sounds of components being snapped together by avatars in the distance. Stopping next to the thick acrylic cover shielding a powerful press, he distractedly slid his hand along its corner as he watched the machine’s arm hurtle downwards, exhaling a muted pneumatic hiss. A pale sheen of red appeared where his hand had passed along the translucent surface. “Ouch,” he exclaimed, suddenly looking down at his index finger where a bead of blood was forming. “Surprisingly realistic,” he murmured, almost to himself. “Yes,” I said, “more so than one might expect.”

Written by: Arthur F. Pease

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