Interview: Siemens on automation, digital twins and factories of the future

“Ask 20 people what a digital twin is, you’ll get 20 different answers,” that’s the take from Andrew Hodgson, Strategic Sales Lead for Digitalisation at Siemens.

The so-called ‘digital twin’ has steadily become one of the more dominant buzz terms in advanced manufacturing as the drive towards digitalisation gains momentum and the value of the digital thread is sung from all corners of industry, not least in additive manufacturing. Siemens, a company which has established itself as a sort of poster-child for the technology, is all in, as I discovered at the engineering leader’s recent Digital Talks event in Liverpool where digital twins, whether in the context of agricultural businesses or packaging firms, were the hot take of the day.

A quick Google search throws up a definition of a ‘digital twin’ as a ‘digital replica of a living or non-living physical entity’. While that’s a pretty good generalisation, for Siemens, the digital twin has many guises across product, process and performance, starting with a digital replica of the product you want to manufacture and simulation within a virtual reality environment. In other words, “beat the product to death before you even start constructing it” as Hodgson put it. You can simulate the process, assembly, manufacturing, and even the factory floor itself. Once that’s up and running, you can then then loop back, comparing the physical with the digital model, observing uptime analysis and any bottlenecks. Then, when the product is out in the field, if connected to a cloud, you can gather data and feedback to improve the overall process.

“It’s all on a single backbone so you can adjust everything upstream and downstream to make the perfect product, and service a better product in virtual reality,” Hodgson told TCT.

Hodgson uses the example of a laptop (but the same could be said for a gas turbine, a car, even a Mars Bar, he explains), where a team of engineers could be anywhere in the world and put the product together in a virtual environment, avoiding mistakes on the factory floor. Depending on the product, the process can get much more complex. For example, do you need to think about how the product will react under certain weather conditions? What if you’re aiming for the holy grail or a batch size of one?

“You have to manufacture at a mass-produced product price but an individual design,” said Hodgson, offering up examples of success stories from the likes of Nike and Mini where digitalisation is enabling mass production of customised products. “That’s where the digital twin comes in, where you design your factory, not so that it can make a million trainers, but so you can make one trainer in a million different ways.”

Since 2007, Siemens has invested 10 billion USD in software companies and is pumping around 1 billion USD per year into digital transformation. At the Liverpool event, visitors heard how the company has benefitted from a yearly productivity increase of 7.9% which it largely puts down to collaboration and de-risking investment. With its Next47 venture arm, it’s also investing in next-generation companies such as 3D printing outfit Markforged, to ensure digitalisation is happening further down the supply chain.

“The bigger you get; the slower innovation becomes,” Hodgson said, commenting on the agility of start-ups compared to larger firms. “[Next47] is encouraging entrepreneurship and agility at the grassroots level into becoming an industrialised benefit to Siemens and our customers.”

The company has also been integral to the UK government’s Made Smarter initiative focused on industrial digitalisation in the UK. The initiative, launched in 2017, has set up a pilot project with businesses in the North West, assisting them in their digital transformation to act as demonstrators. As Hodgson explained, it’s not about using big words and glossy PowerPoint presentations, it’s showcasing how technology can be applied to proven, real-life applications. So far, 399 SMEs have signed up for the programme and 16 projects have been funded with an average grant of 30,000 GBP. Currently, there are a further 30 in development and another 43 being investigated.

That said, Siemens is also giving itself plenty of room to play in places like its Congleton facility in the UK, which has become a global showcase for digitalisation through the implementation of tools like virtual reality and robotics. By strapping on a VR headset, engineers can walk around a product, spin it around, move machines across the factory floor, and there were numerous examples of this in action at Digital Talks to demonstrate how the technology can be used for training staff on production lines that haven’t even been built yet. 

“We have the ‘try everything, fail fast’ ethos,” Hodgson continued. “Small companies can’t do that, they can’t put somebody on [a project] for a month. Siemens are big enough that if you employ 10 of those projects a year, if two come up, the benefit paid for the other eight failures.”

Additive manufacturing is another area Siemens has invested significantly in. Last year, the company gave its Worcester-based Materials Solutions business a 27 million GBP injection of funding to drive the industrialisation of AM. With rows of 3D printers, automated post-processing technologies, digital powder hoppers and guided units travelling across the factory floor, all connected by MindSphere cloud software, it’s the prime example of the coveted factory of the future. TCT visited the facility earlier this year where its 15 AM platforms, a number that’s expected to more than triple in the coming years, were being put to use producing high-end serial parts for Siemens Power and Gas and customers in aerospace, automotive and other industries.

“The factory of the future is flexible operation that produces components as a batch size of one and has a software element that’s running as a digital twin of the factory itself,” Hodgson explained. “The factory of the future has still got people because people are clever, people are very versatile, robots aren’t. They do dangerous and dirty jobs, let human beings do something clever. So, the factory of the future will be twice as productive as a factory now, with the same number of people but employing a virtualisation technology to help manage the system through.”

There is of course some push back from those on the wider manufacturing front line, and understandably so. Fear of change, fear of redundancy, fear of big words that are often not as scary as they seem, are all common concerns which are slowly being addressed with a change in mind-set. Some think it’s “voodoo”, according to Hodgson, while others think it’s just “common sense” – if you can take out a bottleneck, manufacture one part instead of five, monitor the performance of a product out in the field, why wouldn’t you? The reality is, for any manufacturing business whether you’re a Siemens or an SME, failing to adapt can be fatal. 

“When the factory in Congleton got two robots on their lines to do some of the dreary work, there was a round of applause,” Hodgson recalls. “It meant investment and that the company is moving forward, management is reacting to global trends, and they were going to keep their jobs.” 

At last year’s TCT Show, Markus Seibold, VP Additive Manufacturing at Siemens Power and Gas, spoke about the benefits of cross industry collaboration – “sharing the pain and gain of learning and developing.” As the company gears up for this year’s show, where you will see countless examples of collaboration triumphs happening across AM, Hodgson elaborated on what that actually means in terms of putting the onus on big companies, the Siemens of the world, to help their supply chains go digital and push the entire industry forward.

“Collaboration upstream and downstream from the supply chain – the digital supply chain – is becoming more and more effective. But the only downside of that is the human being. The human being in procurement departments feel that if they link in with the supplier one hundred percent, then how are they going to batter them down on price?,” Hodgson added, referring to what he considers the old-fashioned way of procurement. “Then there’s the more enlightened, engineering adoption view. The Industry 4.0 view is if I want a better product at half the price, I’m going to help my suppliers.”

Visit Siemens at TCT Show 2019, booth D86 on 24-26th September. Register for FREE to attend.

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