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How Virtual Factories Are Making Industrial Digitalization a Reality

24/04/2024

To address the shift to electric vehicles, increased semiconductor demand, manufacturing onshoring, and ambitions for greater sustainability, manufacturers are investing in new factory developments and re-engineering their existing facilities.

These projects often run over budget and schedule, due to complex and manual planning processes, legacy technology infrastructure, and disconnected tools, data and teams.

To address these challenges, manufacturers are embracing digitalization and virtual factories, powered by technologies like digital twins, the Universal Scene Description (OpenUSD) ecosystem and generative AI, that enable new possibilities from planning to operations.

What Is a Virtual Factory? A virtual factory is a physically accurate representation of a real factory. These digital twins of factories allow manufacturers to model, simulate, analyze and optimize their production processes, resources and operations without the need for a physical prototype or pilot plant.

Benefits of Virtual Factories Virtual factories unlock many benefits and possibilities for manufacturers, including:

Streamlined Communication: Instead of teams relying on in-person meetings and static planning documents for project alignment, virtual factories streamline communication and ensure that critical design and operations decisions are informed by the most current data.

Contextualized Planning: During facility design, construction and commissioning, virtual factories allow project stakeholders to visualize designs in the context of the entire facility and production process. Planning and operations teams can compare and verify built structures with the virtual designs in real time and decrease costs by identifying errors and incorporating feedback early in the review process.

Optimized Facility Designs: Connecting virtual factories to simulations of processes and discrete events enables teams to optimize facility designs for production and material flow, ergonomic work design, safety and overall utilization.

Intelligent and Optimized Operations: Operations teams can integrate their virtual factories with valuable production data from Internet of Things technology at the edge, and tap AI to drive further optimizations.

Virtual Factories: A Testing Ground for AI and Robotics Robotics developers are increasingly using virtual factories to train and test AI and autonomous systems that run in physical factories. For example, virtual factories can enable developers and manufacturing teams to simulate digital workers and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), vision AI agents and sensors to create a centralized map of worker activity throughout a facility. By fusing data from simulated camera streams with multi-camera tracking, developers can generate occupancy maps that inform optimal AMR routes.

Developers can also use these physically accurate virtual factories to train and test AI agents capable of managing their robot fleets, to ensure AI-enabled robots can adapt to real-world unpredictability and to identify streamlined configurations for human-robot collaboration.

What Are the Foundations of a Virtual Factory Building large-scale, physically accurate virtual factories that unlock these transformational possibilities requires bringing together many tools, data formats and technologies to harmonize the representation of real-world aspects in the digital world.

Originally invented by Pixar Animation Studios, OpenUSD encompasses a collection of tools and capabilities that enable the data interoperability developers and manufacturers require to achieve their digitalization goals.

OpenUSD's core superpower is flexible data modeling. 3D input can be accepted from source applications and combined with a variety of data, including from computer-aided design software, live sensors, documentation and maintenance records, through a unified data pipeline. OpenUSD enables developers to share these data types across different simulation tools and AI models, providing insights for all stakeholders. Data can be synced from the factory floor to the digital twin, surfacing real-time insights for factory managers and teams.

By developing virtual factory solutions on OpenUSD, developers can enhance collaboration for factory teams, allowing them to review plans, discuss optimization opportunities and make decisions in real time.

To support and accelerate the development of the OpenUSD ecosystem, Pixar, Adobe, Apple, Autodesk and NVIDIA formed the Alliance for OpenUSD, which is building open standards for USD in core specification, materials, geometry and more.

Industrial Use Cases for Virtual Factories To unlock the potential of virtual factories, industry leaders including Autodesk, Continental, Pegatron, Rockwell Automation, Siemens and Wistron are developing virtual-factory solutions that interoperate with OpenUSD and NVIDIA Omniverse, a platform of application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits that enable developers to build applications for complex 3D and industrial digitalization workflows based on OpenUSD.

FlexSim, an Autodesk company, uses OpenUSD to enable factory teams to analyze, visualize and optimize real-world processes with its simulation modeling for complex systems and operations. The discrete-event simulation software provides an intuitive drag-and-drop interface to create 3D simulation models, account for real-world variability, run what-if scenarios and perform in-depth analyses.

Developers at Continental, a leading German automotive technology company, developed ContiVerse, a factory planning and manufacturing operations application on OpenUSD and NVIDIA Omniverse. The application helps Continental optimize factory layouts and plan production processes collaboratively, leading to an expected 13% reduction in time to market.

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