The Virtual Manufacturing Lines of the Future

A tool for use in R&D, teaching and process control

The development and expansion of mainframes, computers and finally PCs inevitably resulted in digitalization in all areas of society – and thus started a race against time. In the early 1970s, the specialists started becoming involved in “formula translation programming,” or FORTRAN, doing a huge service to scientists and engineers. After the introduction of Pascal and C in the 1980s, a framework was established to take on multilevel object-oriented tasks with subroutines. For the first time, it became possible to write general purpose programs with packages such as CAD, MKS, MATLABR/Simulink and FEM platforms. Now there were powerful 2D (and later 3D) tools and these played a significant role in improving quality in a variety of areas of engineering. The first steps had been taken on the path to virtualization. Professor Dr.-Ing. Dr. h. c. Florin Ionescu, a Steinbeis director in Constance, has now spent a number of years observing and promoting the application of developments made in the field of virtualization to production lines and components used in production.

Virtualization has been of particular benefit to a number of fields – plant engineering, vehicle construction, the aerospace industry, shipbuilding and the railways – where products can now be depicted and presented virtually. But the real pioneer in virtual applications is considered to be the automotive industry. It was here that leaps in development and quality became possible and development cycles and costs were reduced radically. Simultaneously, there were long-term improvements in functional reliability.

In the world of tomorrow, the vision is of fully automated manufacturing, with entirely virtual production lines (officially “virtual manufacturing lines,” or VML). But everything depends on progress with the development of automatic processing. Under an EU research program called Horizon 2020 and a framework concept laid down by the BMBF called “Research for the production of tomorrow,” companies are being invited to tender for funding to support future-oriented work in order to solve a number of key tasks in this sector. The experts expect the VMLs of the future to become a key success factor in technological advancement, with a sweeping impact on product and service markets. Specialists believe that an important step on the road ahead will be the predicted launch in manufacturing of dual or multiprocessor technology, as well as germanium processors.

Without a doubt, virtualization brings a number of benefits. Design and development always involves making calculations, which can take on new forms and include modeling and the simulation of drive and control systems. More and more development and modeling work involves the highly realistic reconstruction of tools and tooling machines, milling and machining processes, industrial robots, and logistical equipment (tool/device warehouses, component transportation). With virtualization, it is also possible to include sensors, either networked or on an individual basis. It is already possible to improve speeds by integrating optical fibers. Tracking processes and gathering data on the status of individual tasks makes it possible to carry out diagnostics and make predictions, and based on this, alternative or corrective measures can be planned and tested online. In fact, virtualization makes it possible to model processes and simulate the entire VML in parallel. Parameters can be defined for carrying out further optimizations, especially if revolving or touching parts malfunction, and the impact of non-linear phenomena can be identified early and eradicated. Virtualization is an enrichment for research and university lecturing, and training and staff development can be made more tangible and informative. This is all achieved by improving the content and quality of images, which can be highly accurate and realistic. Also, savings can be made on machines and equipment, but also with energy, space and materials. Ultimately, in many cases virtualization actually makes things possible in the first place.

The concept of VMLs has become more detailed over the years and it is now being implemented step by step. It involves complex issues, requiring a comprehensive understanding of physics, mechanics, mathematics, engineering science, 3D modeling, simulation, control technology, drive technology and IT. A decisive element has been inclusion of the latest progress made in hardware and software development. The crux of a VML concept lies in:

  • The multilevel object-oriented concept and models relating to this: This comprises the combination of modules, with the lowest level being dedicated to layer properties. With MBS and HYPAS platforms, consolidation is possible into bodies or sub-modules, then, based on this, come chains and machines or equipment. The model can be open-ended in vertical terms, which is helpful in case of possible extensions.
  • The composition of components: Design and modeling are specific to parts. This makes it possible to develop components independently for machine tools, industrial robots, sensors and logistical equipment.
  • Workstations are the basic element within a VML: They can include one or several tool machines with their specific surroundings when used in machining, or one or several industrial robots, warehouse facilities or sensors.
  • Models for device warehouse facilities, industrial robots and logistics equipment are produced with MBS M/S platform, which includes CAD and FEM programs.
  • Industrial robots are observed on a case-by-case basis and controlled and regulated as necessary.
  • Modeling and simulation of drive functions, control functions and process controls is achieved with a HYPAS platform which can be integrated into the VML platform. These platforms also use integration algorithms (RKII, RKIV, PC, etc.).
  • In logistics there is a separate drive and warehouse control system; the workstations are supplied with parts, tools and devices. The system is controlled and regulated by its own process control computer.
  • Mobile robots used with the logistics equipment are small devices and have to be dealt with separately. They can be controlled and regulated locally or centrally. As such, they constitute a separate section within the VML.

There were a number of projects lasting several years looking at VML development, both at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Engineering & Project Consulting in Constance and at the Steinbeis Transfer Institute for Dynamic Systems at Steinbeis University Berlin. The projects revolved around how partial modules are implemented although they also involved the specific transfer of findings into the business environment. For example, a collaboration with Hermann Paus’ company, Maschinenfabrik in Emsbüren, involved the development and implementation of a processing machine for underground applications – a milestone project in the development of the company.


Professor Dr.-Ing., Dr. h. c. Florin Ionescu is director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Engineering & Project Consulting in Constance as well as the Steinbeis Transfer Institute for Dynamic Systems, which belongs to Steinbeis University Berlin. Both enterprises work in the fields of machine dynamics, vibrations, noise emissions and the optimization thereof, as well as process control, robotics, logistics, (visio)-control and micro-nano robotics.

Professor Dr.-Ing., Dr. h. c. Florin Ionescu
Steinbeis Transfer Institute Dynamic Systems (Berlin/Constance)

Steinbeis Transfer Center Engineering & Project Consulting (Constance)

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