Virtually designing out problems with 3D simulation software

3D simulation software is moving from being a nice-to-have to a necessity for manufacturers thanks to technology advances.

By Mikko Urho March 10, 2022
Image courtesy: Brett Sayles

Even 10 years ago, simulating a manufacturing process or build would typically be performed using a 2D solution, such as Excel spreadsheets, to decipher the efficiency or effectiveness of a process. Difficulties existed however with the limited insight the technology provided for organizations to plan ahead.

A lot can change in a decade, and a key external factor for manufacturers has been the rise of Industry 4.0. What makes this era different from the previous iterations however is the focus on the digital transformation of the manufacturing sector, and the role of smart automation.

In recent years, many manufacturers have adopted automation and robotics to increase efficiency in operations, alongside emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud. With significant investment taking place in order to benefit from these emerging solutions, manufacturers are looking to gain the most value possible from them, while also avoiding the significant financial risk of poorly thought out process changes or tweaks.

Costly mistakes

A study by Visual Components of 100 UK decision makers in the manufacturing industry discovered that mistakes made in the upgrading or building of a new manufacturing site averaged at a staggering £2.5m, while the average cost of general mistakes and/or associated downtime totaled almost £98,000.

In line with these emerging trends and the increased need to avoid risk, these developments give a clear picture of how the manufacturing sector will transform in the coming years, but what specific changes will help bring 3D simulation software into the mainstream?

Going back 20 years, much of the work on the factory floor would be performed manually. Today, more and more production is automated via robotics due to the advances of Industry 4.0, which allows automation solutions to be quickly reprogrammed to handle changes in products being assembled.

The trend to deploy this technology shows no signs of slowing, but manufacturers that lack the ability to test certain pathways or movements, risk inefficiency and wasted costs. Something as simple as a robot with insufficient reach, due to an inaccurate design, could become a costly and inefficient problem on the factory floor. Robust 3D simulation software plays a vital role in allowing accurate simulation of robotic movements and their interactions with other machines, humans and equipment.

As integration of robotics and automated technologies increase, access to a simulated environment will become a must-have, enabling a trial-and-error approach and the capability to make an infinite number of mistakes in a digital twin before applying best practice techniques to the real environment. The need for this software will only expand as robotics become more widely adopted.

Alongside this is the rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which allows machine builders and integrators to integrate low-cost sensors into their lines and stream data to the cloud for analysis. With this data mapped and paired with a digital twin, organizations are able to aid continuous improvement, remote visualization, problem resolution and change management.

3D simulation software was previously held back by being an expensive solution that only the most skilled could use to its full potential. There are now platforms available that are much more accessible to both small and medium sized enterprises, and are based around the creation of layouts from existing components that previously didn’t exist in the market. Component-based simulation software enables users to make tweaks to existing robots in the manufacturing line, and the ability to make these small edits without having to start a project over again from scratch will offer huge benefits.

Older forms of simulation software were also typically suited to particular programmers and employees, while outdated technology meant that projects would take longer. Many manufacturers would have viewed 3D simulation software as a nice-to-have due to the long timeframe required, where simulating a factory layout would have taken, on average, a month to complete, while now it can be completed in weeks or even days. This turnaround of time to achieve an end result means that for businesses selling production lines, proposals can be completed quickly and easily in 3D simulation software.

Supporting sustainability

It’s not just the growth of technologies and accessibility to 3D simulation software that will make it a business necessity, but also the increasing trend towards environmentally friendly practices. Across industries globally, the pressure to be more sustainable is growing and will continue to expand in importance over the coming years. The UK Government became the first major economy in the world to commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with manufacturers looking to adopt sustainable practices to help this collective target to be met.

A trend moving forward will be a drive by manufacturers to ensure sustainability via different methods. This will include the enablement of efficiency by being able to test changes on the factory floor with 3D simulation software. A focus on reduction of waste will also be crucial. Use of this software could, for example, allow AGV transport paths, the actions of forklifts and the re-use of raw materials to be tested, encouraging the deployment of lean manufacturing methods.

Also crucial moving forward will be the design elements of factories. Whether it’s floor space, production or process flows, simulation software allows professionals to test new processes to bring greater energy saving benefits. Sustainable practices can also be applied to the supply chain. By applying simulation software to these operations, more transparent processes can be applied to the real environment.

With more focus being placed on the carbon emissions produced by physical travel – such as via car or air travel – 3D simulation software also has a role to play in reducing the requirement for future factory layouts to be presented in-person. The accuracy and detail presented by the software means that professionals are able to communicate detailed environments more easily to colleagues or clients virtually, reducing emissions emitted by travel. Workflows are also typically a more persuasive tool that viewing charts or spreadsheets, and it’s likely that moving forward, supporting technology such as VR headsets will be used to immerse the viewer in the detail of a digital twin.

The changing landscape of manufacturing means that 3D simulation software is now a crucial application in the tool kit of manufacturing companies. The rise of Industry 4.0 and the tendency to undertake digital transformation strategies, such as the adoption of robotics and automation tools, means that organizations need to utilize this software to ensure that their return on investment (ROI) is as high as possible. Adopting this software will also enable more sustainable practices to be followed, allowing for waste reduction and increased energy efficiency.

Today, 3D simulation software is more accessible due to the reduced cost of investment and increased ease-of-use, leaving organizations with little excuse not to harness its benefits moving forward. This will no doubt be accelerated by a new generation of employees that have utilized the software from an earlier age – such as at university level. It must be expected that 2D solutions will become a thing of the past as 3D becomes standard practice and enables a wide range of benefits for the manufacturing industry.

– This originally appeared on Control Engineering Europe’s website. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Mikko Urho is CEO of Visual Components.