The big question was, Would it work? Traditional practice runs were not an option, since conditions on Mars could not be replicated—or even approximated—on Earth. Doug McCuistion, the former NASA director who led the Mars Exploration Program, notes some of the complexities: “Thousands of different software-driven events had to occur throughout the seven-minute landing process. Seventy-six pyrotechnics had to fire, all at exactly the right time. If any one of those events is not successful, you have a mission failure.” McCuistion says he was confident about the landing because of the extensive trial runs NASA had been able to simulate in the virtual world, combined with targeted testing. The technology used, he explains, “is a combination of deep analysis through software coupled with modeling, which allowed us to develop simulations of amazingly complex descent systems, and to run thousands and thousands of iterations. It could only be done with the design and simulation software we have today.”
The visualization and simulation software used in the Mars Exploration Program, provided by Siemens, is similar to the software that manufacturers such as Ford, Unilever, Canon, Dyson, and Callaway use to design and optimize production processes before changes or alterations are made to products or production machinery. This enables the companies to bring products to market much more quickly and efficiently than in the past. The further impact of visualization software will be greatest in discrete manufacturing (production of distinct items such as autos, appliances, or toys), whereas process manufacturing (products such as oil and gas) will benefit mostly in the design of the production facilities.
When simulation software is used on the factory floor alongside the machinery that it models, it gives operators a “digital twin” of the machine on screen, which looks and acts exactly like the machine itself. Index-Werke, in Esslingen, Germany, has built this virtual machine capability into its state-of-the-art CNC lathes. Operators can test and optimize a new process without taking the machine out of production. According to Eberhard Beck, the head of control technology at Index-Werke, the digital twin approach increases operational productivity by 10 percent, and reduces machine downtime during the setup process for new jobs by 80 percent.
• Greater flexibility. The integration of virtual and real production is making mass customization—the ability to make more customized and varied products without adding significant cost—a reality. When Ford’s Model T assembly line started up 100 years ago, the company famously offered the car in “any color you want, so long as it’s black.” Today, Ford can build its F150 pickup truck to customer specifications in millions of possible configurations involving the body, drivetrain, wheels, accessories, and trim.
Ford has been a leader in designing flexible production that not only enables mass customization, but also allows the company to build different vehicle models in the same plant, or build the same model in dissimilar plants around the world all using, and maximizing, the same global manufacturing standards. This capability is increasingly important as automakers produce vehicles in different configurations—including gasoline, electric, and hybrid powertrains—for different markets. To make this possible, Ford partnered with Siemens to create an “enterprise bill-of-process” software capability that allows engineers to simulate the entire assembly process at different plants. The application was recognized in the industry through Ford’s “Manufacturer of the Year” award from the Manufacturing Leadership Council in 2013.
“Our goal is to lead the industry in flexible manufacturing and global vehicle program development,” says Alan Baumgartner, technical leader of virtual manufacturing at Ford. “It starts with having a software system that enables us to build vehicles that are innovative and loaded with technology, but in a way that makes them affordable. We can do that by driving standardization and reuse of our vehicle programs on a global scale.”