Simulations & Virtual Reality, Digital Twins and Augmented Reality Supporting Automation and Production Solutions (pt 1)

AAE (Grauel) pushes technical boundaries. We provide high tech printing & assembly solutions. We support smart printing and manufacturing with Smart Industry technologies and solutions. This series of articles provide background information on how these developments are supported. 



Industry 4.0 pushes the use of new technologies, as the manufacturing industry faces constant challenges of producing innovative products at shortened time-to-market. This requires companies to work more efficiently, requiring real-time information exchange at various phases such as product development, production planningassembly, etc. Also, with the exchange of more and more information in the value chain (supplier and customers) new complexity to the information exchange is added.  

Looking specifically at the development and operation of assembly and / or manufacturing equipment, interesting (new) techniques are available and used to support faster development and better information exchange.  

These techniques allow users to conduct analysis on the design and operation in an early stage to understand the effects on the operation of the final machine. This provides useful information even before they are implemented in the real world thus increasing operation efficiency and communication.  

To provide a better understanding of these developments, we introduce a series of three articles in which the following topics are reviewed: 

  • Simulations & Virtual Reality (part 1)
  • Digital Twin(s) (part 2)
  • Augmented Reality (part 3)

Each of the three (3) articles will start by looking at the history and definition of the specific subject. More details will be provided in the paragraph “a deeper look.” Examples will be included to provides more background information on the specific topic. When of interest, contact AAE if you would like to find out more about more detailed cases or practical use.  

In the last paragraphs we will look at the benefits for the automation supplier and the manufacturing company.  


Simulations; history and definition

Virtual reality & simulations are seen as one of the key drivers for Industry 4.0To better understand what is meant by a simulation we will use the definition for simulation as provided in the article “Simulation in Manufacturing: Review and Challenges by Mourtzis, ea. which defines this as: 

Simulation modelling and analysis is the process of creating and experimenting with a computerized mathematical model of a physical system.

Especially with the increased interest and developments of digital twins (which will be reviewed in the next article), the definitions of a simulation and digital twin are sometimes mixed upIn our definition, a simulation takes entirely place inside the computer (no connection to the outside world and often projected using a fully closed headset) 

Simulations have a new “feel” to them, especially with a focus on Industry 4.0 but the first simulation dates back to 1777. This was an experiment by Comte de Buffon (French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopedist) where needles where repeatedly thrown on a sheet of paper with equidistant lines (e.g., squared paper). The goal was to calculate the number of times, a needle would cross a line. This was done in a Monte Carlo method*1 which means that the process is repeated many times with different start conditions
(*1 there are various types of simulation, the description of the various types falls outside the scope of this article). 

A historical evolution of simulations is shown below. For more in-depth reading on the history of simulations, the article, Simulation in Manufacturing: Review and Challenges” provides valuable information on the topic: 


Simulation, a deeper look

In this paragraph we take a deeper look at simulationand also include a specific example to see how plastic syringes behave when they are filled in a bunker feeder.  

The first step is to define the correct simulation software. There are a lot of different simulation programs and methods available, each dedicated to a specific area 

In the article “Discrete simulation software ranking – a top list of the worldwide most popular and used tools.” by Luís M. S. Dias (and others) eighteen (18) different simulation software packages are compared on the various aspects. The same applies for other fields or application, a lot of simulation software is available and needs to be carefully reviewed to understand if it will meet the requirements (incorrect selection in this phase has large consequence later in the process) 

We will use an examplefor illustration purposeswhere we will look at a (simple) mechanical simulation to understand if we can fit a large number of plastic syringes in an elevator bunkerThe first step involved is to decide on the purpose of the simulation and the performance parameters (also known as identification and formulating the problem).  

The next step involves collection of data and development of a model (see below)

We now have modeled a syringe that meets the dimensions of the actual product. Using a model (or “lightweight” product), more computer processing power can be used for calculations. Simulations can consume an incredible amount of processing power (and time) when incorrect models are provided.  

The model and simulation can now be tested (first pass simulation) and validated*1 to see if real world conditions are metMost simulation software packages provide a lot of parameters that require to be set.  

*1 the phrase garbage in is garbage out certainly applies here. 

For this simulation we can define various parameters including gravity, mass, linear and angular velocity, each having an effect on the outcome.  

Note: gravity seems to be a dead give-away and a standard setting for most simulations, but the model prepared, and the simulations program may use different orientations (left- vs. right-handed coordinate systems). Using incorrect co-ordination systems for the model and simulation may result in very interesting (incorrect) results.  


Having set the parameters, we can now run the simulation and document the result. We also have the opportunity to test the simulations under various conditions. An impression of the syringes falling in the bunker is shown below (bunker side has been made transparent for illustration purposes created using virtual reality). 

Simulations Supporting Automation Decision

For automation companies, simulations offer unique possibilities as they provide the designers with practical feedback when designing real world systems. This supports decision making at the early stages of automation.  

Machine design decision can be verified with virtual products being introduced in the simulationIt allows to understand aspects such as airflow, various forces applied, movement of parts in the machinery or the interaction with adjacent machinery, etc. 

Looking at the syringe simulation we made earlier as an example, we can view the position of the individual syringes in a specific area.  

This makes it easier to, already in the design phase, verify assumptions and design choices, to predict the final operation and interaction. Just as an example, robot movement in combination with a loading system can be simulated. The handling and dwell time of a robot (Scara) as well as the interaction with a linear feeder can be simulated and reviewed. When combined with product simulations this provides a powerful tool to verify operation early in the design process.  

Simulations can be used throughout the life cycle of the machine (or process) including the (virtual) installationcommissioning and operation. The simulations as shown before can also be used to test upgrades or modifications made to an existing machine.  

Simulations provide risk-free environment where various ideas and scenarios can be tested to understand the outcome 


Simulation Supporting Manufacturing Decision

Also, for manufacturing companies, simulations provide great means to test and optimize the production. When it comes to production processes, it is always a challenge to introduce new or modified products into the production process.  

Thchallenge for manufacturers is to figure out what to change in order to get the best results. Simulation software can assist with this process. Using simulations, manufacturers can create virtual representations of a process and test various ideas.  

This allows businesses to validate a product, process, or improvement idea without needing to incur the full expense up front. 

The automation of a flexible feeding system with robot (and vision systemcan be simulated to understand the impact on the current operation. New products to be handled can be included in the simulation to understand the possible effects. The performance (and integration) can be tested in a risk-free environment.  

This is where simulations are useful for manufacturing companies, it supports finding weaknesses in advance and reduce equipment downtime. This can be done by testing ways to limit the impact and also making it easier for engineers to design or select a more efficient or robust manufacturing line.  

Simulation can also be used to provide useful insight in finding the most efficient warehousing routing for AGV (Automated Guided Vehicles) and logistic processes. The interfacing between the manufacturing equipment and warehousing can be tested and verified (as well as the full logistical process).  

In the image above, AGV vehicles are included in the simulation where the actual position is read and displayed. When the AGV’s are positioned in an accurate dimensioned facility (floor space and machinery) an accurate and correct AGV routing can be tested and observed.  


Simulation Software and the rise of Game Engines

Various software packages are available to support simulations 

An interesting development in this field is the rise of so-called game enginesOriginally developed to create games, the simulations and physics required for “real life” experiences in games start to meet real life conditions. Game engines also allow for real time data processing making them suitable for digital twin development (will be discussed in the next article). Game engines such as Unity and Unreal are being used by leading manufacturers for process validation and verification.  

Companies that started using these techniques have an advantage when it comes to supporting industry 4.0. Manufacturing companies benefit from using automation partners using the potential of simulation software. 

Stay tuned for more, coming up next month! In the meantime, please consider following Grauel, a brand of AAE, on LinkedIn for weekly updates and extra content. 


‘Sumulations & Virtual Reality, Ditigal Twins and Augmented Reality Supporting Automation and Production Solutions’, by Ivo Brouwer – Business Developer Production Automation at AAE b.v.



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