By Marcus Kremers
In May of last year I started in my new role of CTO at Airborne International, heading up the team developing automation and digital manufacturing solutions. If you start in a new role, it’s always good to first be humble and listen. Digital manufacturing is a hot topic, set to revolutionise the industry. But I quickly discovered that there are many ideas floating around on the concept of digital manufacturing with many variants and purposes. I was privileged to have the opportunity to talk with many industry leaders and experts over the past year and in this blog I want to share some of the insights I learned.
It’s… like driving a car!
In my previous job, as CTO of Airborne Oil & Gas, one of my brilliant colleagues was Nicolas Avril, Subject Matter Expert Operational Excellence and a Six Sigma Black Belt. He frequently used the analogy of driving a car to explain how to control a process and stay within the upper and lower process limits. In fact he used the same analogy so often that I still dream about it! And actually, there is a nice analogy between the driving a car and digital manufacturing. The first step was the introduction of the automobile – an automated form of movement – with a human at the steering wheel. Then came the navigation system, which you can see as a digital twin: a simulation constantly updated with real-time data. It serves as an assistant, you are still driving yourself. If you don’t follow the advice, the system will patiently recalculate and advice a new route. The ultimate step will be a self-driving car, in which the system will take over and operate the car autonomously and you only have to provide the end destination. The same three steps apply to our composites industry. Right now we are working on the automation of the composite production process, still controlled by a human operator. The next step will be the Digital Twin: a virtual duplicate of the production system, running online and coupled with real-time data, which can be used as assistant or to test algorithms to improve the process and feed these back to the real manufacturing. Then, as the third step, we’ll move towards an autonomous production process that can use machine learning to optimise the process automatically for ultimate efficiency and quality. This is the holy grail of digital manufacturing.
Quentin van Ballegooie, managing director at JB Systems Industrial Automation, explained to me quite clearly how such a digital twin actually works. It is basically divided into three main blocks:
- Visual and full representation of the production line;
- Digitized controls of the production line in the virtual environment;
- Manufacturing simulation of the physical world and its physical processes
All these three blocks should be coupled to each other, with the data stream coming directly from the physical production line. This was a real eye-opener for me as most people, myself included, think of a Digital Twin as only one or maybe two of these blocks.
Gaming with Composites
So, is this Digital Twin really new? As Siemens, our partner in the Digital Factory for Composites fieldlab, has demonstrated, a visual representation with digitized controls of the production line is already possible. An interesting development is to see how in this respect the industry is merging with gaming software – a totally different industry striving for the same thing, realistic representation of the real world. In the manufacturing industry we are all used to using 3D CAD software, but more and more often gaming technology will be used to build digital twins. An interesting cross-over! Suddenly I find the games that my kids play very interesting and useful, seeing and learning what is already possible to realistically simulate in games. If you look closely, it’s quite amazing!
Simulating production processes
To make the move towards digital manufacturing, the biggest challenge for our industry is accurately simulating the production process. While we have a pretty good understanding of the basic process parameters like temperature and pressure, many challenges remain. As Siemens’ Kristoph Vanclooster explained to me, that really touches upon the boundaries of what we academically understand. For example, there is no good physical model for an uncured prepreg, in which the fibres are still emerged in a liquid resin. Such models are vital to build reliable Digital Twins. Also, my good friend Christophe Lanaud, who has worked on setting up digital twins for composite manufacturing at GE and who now has his own company Tekio for developing digital twins, is always pressing the importance of accurate process models – but also to combine physics-based models with empirical models based on the available data. There will always be aspects that are not possible to model yet. In the end it’s about getting the digital twin to predict the process accurately enough and to implement it in actual manufacturing.
More than a feeling?
Bert Thuis, who leads the composite development team at the National Aerospace Laboratory in the Netherlands (NLR), explained to me the importance of coupling visual representation and digitized controls to manufacturing simulation. Right now we still have a human operator fiddling with the controls to adjust the settings in a live environment. This only works to some extent, as long as it doesn’t become too complex. It all comes down to so-called Fingerspitzengefühl, having the feeling to adjust and tweak the controls for a good end-result. Some people have it, some don’t.
Here the Digital Twin comes in handy as an assistant. It is a way of giving advice during the live process to enable the operator to make better decisions. If the production process is not running well, the Digital Twin will give you a few different options. Take Resin Transfer Moulding (RTM), for example, where resin is injected from one side into the enclosed mould. You can’t see what’s going on inside the mould and you need to tweak the controls more or less on the fly. This is a typical example where a Digital Twin would be of great benefit. Simon Astwood told me how at the National Composites Centre (NCC) they are trying to better understand production processes by coupling the Digital Twin to sensors inside of the RTM mould or autoclave.
So… what will the future bring us?
Unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball but I do know there are some interesting developments ahead of us. One of them is that at Airborne, where we are building a fully automated production line together with SABIC and Siemens, that is going to proof thermoplastic composites can be produced at high speed, in high volumes and with low waste. It will be digital, adaptive, adjustable and the first end-to-end automated thermoplastic composite laminates line. This advanced composites manufacturing shows new ways how to work together on supply chain transparency, adaptive processing based on experience and data, and shows what it takes to be able to really implement knowledge based processing. We will also build a full Digital Twin as part of the SMITZH programme, which will be demonstrated in our Digital Factory for Composites field lab.
Why is that such a big deal? Well, composites are great with intrinsically advantages such as lightweight, strong and stiff, and more durable, which can help to make the world a better place. But manufacturing is complex and still costly. With automation and digital manufacturing we can radically reduce these costs and enable composites in many more markets. Difficult stuff, but we are working hard on it every day. I am looking forward to showing you in my next blogs how we, step by step, are getting closer to finding the Holy Grail of Composites. If you have comments or question, feel free to contact me or place a comment. See you in my next blog!
This blog was also posted on LinkedIN.