Digital manufacturing in the real world

Virtual technology brings factory planning to life

Globalization is placing many companies under increasing competitive pressure. In the face of global competition, the most important leg a modern company has to stand on remains its production. As demands intensify, it is becoming increasingly important for companies to improve, continuously. Central to this are: high quality standards, the concept of living up to customer needs and doing what is best for one’s own company by manufacturing products in the optimum way.  

Central to this are not just people’s experience and previous knowledge, or continuous improvements in the way production is arranged, staff also need a solid grasp of the methods used to plan and organize factories. This all comes down to the overall view of the production process. For a company to react quickly to market fluctuations their view of production has to be holistic. This also applies to the layout of the factory.

A factory layout is based on the way functions such as departments, work stations, and equipment are arranged and how everything links together. The links are dictated by different flows within the system such as material, people, energy and information flows. Layouts work well when each functional area is geared to the systems underlying the flow and, with this, the flow of production.

Especially with factory buildings that have grown over many years without thinking about future needs, one of the most common problems is that the structure no longer bears any relation to the different flow systems. Once things have gone this far, it is time to draft a strategic general land use plan, which not only takes into account which areas and building units you need, it also looks at where they go, how they link up, and how they will be used, or adapted, in the long term. The aim with such a plan is to structure use of industrial land to match the flows, use space appropriately, and make it easy to expand in the long term. A variety of documents are drafted as part of the planning process, such as true-to-scale ground plans, surveys and functional specifications. These capture the overall layout of the plot of land being used, including existing and planned building projects. Constantly updating these documents makes it much easier to make changes or re-plan the area.

To accelerate the planning process and cut the overall timescale, factory and plant planning is undergoing a fundamental change. In the old days it was all about 2D layouts. These are being replaced by 3D factory modeling. Modern factory planning could not survive without core components such as computer simulation, digital modeling with integrated collision checking and virtual reality. These allow you to put complex relationships under the microscope and work out clashes within individual aspects of the planning process – the architecture, heating, ventilation, fittings, and logistics. Clashes are already pinpointed during planning and eradicated. Modern “digital factory planning” therefore safeguards the overall smooth functioning of the factory, as it goes through the paces in a virtual world long before the first foundation stone is laid.

However, planning in a virtual world only works properly if the planning data used is an exact reflection of reality. To make sure it is, virtual data has to be compared with the real situation. A key technology now established in this area is called “mixed reality”, normally understood as synonymous with “augmented reality”. Overlaying the real environment with virtual simulations provides another way to validate plans.

Based in Neu-Ulm, the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Factory Planning is a specialist in industrial planning and consulting. It also develops futuristic planning concepts and already makes intensive use of a variety of virtual technologies. The “Digital Factory” is now central to entire factory planning projects and as well as conventional tools, it has a variety of highly advanced technologies at its disposal.  

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