Realising the benefits of virtual commissioning on automation projects

Virtual commissioning is a valuable technology commonly
used on large projects, typical of those found within the
major automotive manufacturers, where systems containing
hundreds of robots, PLC’s and complex devices are tested,
validated and commissioned in a virtual environment. The
benefits to these customers, who are generally working on
tight project timescales, are both clear and significant. In
these instances it is not unusual for valuable savings on
project timescales to be realised as a result of the virtual
commissioning process.

In this article, Tim Bednall – Sales & Marketing Manager
for Wood Automated Systems UK explains how the virtual
commissioning process developed by the company can
bring equally tangible benefits when applied to smaller
automated systems, and why in time it is likely to become
the standard approach for all automation projects.

The usual method of commissioning for automation
systems has generally followed a traditional route. The
system will be designed, individual components parts either
outsourced or manufactured, software, PLC and robot
programmes created, and once the system build process is
almost complete, initial commissioning will begin. Although
a clear, structured and well-understood process, it is time
consuming, and at the point where true commissioning
begins, the project timescales are likely to already be
compressed with the target completion date looming.

As many smaller automation projects become more
complex, especially in instances where there may be
multiple technologies being integrated, the justification
for and the potential benefits to be realised by using the
virtual commissioning process become clearer. Therefore
within today’s high-pressure and fast-paced environment,
simulation and virtual commissioning is likely to become
an essential part of many automation projects. Not only do
these processes help mitigate risk, they also significantly
reduce precious set-up time on site. Virtual Commissioning
is the process of validating the operation of control system
software against a model of the mechanism, machine or
system. In this context, the model could be a 2D or 3D
CAD “Digital Twin” of the actual facility. In the context of
Industrial Automation, Virtual Commissioning is used to test
the operation of PLC, Robotic controls and other complex
devices system software by connecting virtual or real
controllers to the inputs and outputs of components and
mechanisms that exist within a 2D or 3D virtual machine

A Virtual Commissioning model or Digital Twin of the
system is created, and the inputs and outputs of its
components and mechanisms connected into the PLC,
running the control code. The software is tested and
validated through the Virtual Commissioning model. Test
scripts can be designed up-front as part of the Functional
Design Specification (FDS), including user interfaces, status
and error messaging and fault diagnosis and recovery. Once
the software had been tested and validated in the Virtual
Commissioning environment, the PLC software and new
mechanical equipment is installed on site.

Wood – Automated Systems UK has made significant
investments in simulation and virtual commissioning
technology in order to prove automation solutions at the
design stage. The company’s simulation expertise, gained
from the use of their systems across many complex
automation lines, reduces risk, cost and timescales for
customers embarking on automation projects, delivering
peace of mind ahead of the actual installation. Engineers
are able to use advanced software to explore and analyse a
whole host of ‘what if?’ scenarios, allowing the performance
of each element of each solution to be optimised. Once the
software for the particular programme has been written,
a virtual model is created to demonstrate exactly how the
solution will work.

The virtual commissioning process also makes it possible
to create production and maintenance scenarios that would
otherwise be impossible or dangerous to implement in real
life. As well as reducing costs, rigorous simulation and
virtual commissioning also minimise the risk of damage to
machinery and overcomes potential safety related issues
keeping the project on schedule.