Europe’s manufacturing sector is undergoing a transformation to compete in the global market. The use of digital twins, virtual factories created using advanced technologies, is revolutionizing European manufacturing by optimizing production processes. This initiative is funded by the European Union and aims to help manufacturers utilize techniques like cloud computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, and blockchain to improve their manufacturing operations.
A consumer electronics company, Philips, manages an electric shaver factory in the Netherlands that is participating in this EU-funded research project. The factory is implementing digital twin technology to enhance its production processes and prepare for increased competitiveness in international markets.
The manufacturing sector in Europe, worth €5 billion ($5.4 billion), faces challenges from foreign export-oriented manufacturers and stricter environmental standards within the European Union. Additionally, energy price spikes following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic have further complicated the situation.
To address these challenges and adapt to the fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, the European Union has established the Factories of the Future public-private partnership. With an investment of €1.15 billion ($1.25 billion), this partnership promotes research and innovation in the manufacturing industry.
The concept of virtual factories is gaining traction in Europe, with companies like Airbus and Schneider Electric exploring digital twin concepts and establishing virtual production plants. The DIMOFAC initiative, launched in late 2019, has developed a system called plug-and-produce, which enables the reconfiguration of production lines by connecting real machinery to their digital twins. This system allows manufacturers to simulate new configurations virtually and resolve any issues before implementing them in physical factories, thus reducing reconfiguration time.
The plug-and-produce system will be tested in five existing production plants across Europe, including the electric shaver factory in the Netherlands. Other sites include aerospace component fabrication in Ireland and interactive screen production in Switzerland. Results from these implementations are expected in the first quarter of 2024. With 30 partners, including Siemens Industry Software, FILL, and EXOM Engineering, the DIMOFAC initiative brings together a wide range of industrial expertise.
Another EU-funded project, FIRST, has also contributed to the advancement of digital factories. Over its six-year operation, FIRST explored how digital factories can enhance efficiency in multi-location production facilities. The project aimed to identify obstacles hindering the adoption of virtual factory technologies and develop strategies to overcome them. Manufacturers, software companies, and universities from countries such as Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and China collaborated in this project.
Lai Xu, the coordinator of FIRST and an associate professor at Bournemouth University, believes that digital twins offer significant potential for the industry in terms of business and environmental benefits. For example, a company can design a product in one location and coordinate its manufacture and sale globally using a digital model of the production process. By leveraging blockchain technology, stakeholders involved in the production process can receive real-time information about the required materials, their location, and the manufacturing timeline, enabling more efficient and sustainable manufacturing processes.
One of the advantages of virtual factory technologies is their ability to increase cost savings by streamlining maintenance processes for complex machinery. Sensors collect data that can indicate when an engineer should be dispatched for repairs, resulting in more efficient maintenance management.
The success and importance of virtual manufacturing technologies are evident as the FIRST consortium seeks additional funding from the EU and other countries to further advance in the field.
In conclusion, the implementation of digital twins in European manufacturing is revolutionizing the industry by optimizing production processes and enhancing competitiveness in the global market. With the support of the European Union and initiatives like DIMOFAC and FIRST, manufacturers are leveraging advanced technologies to improve manufacturing efficiency, reduce environmental impact, and adapt to Industry 4.0. The future of manufacturing lies in the virtual factory, where real-time data and technological advancements converge to drive innovation and success.