What if…05 August 2019

There are many different uses for virtual reality technology in industrial settings. Redesigning existing facilities, as well as imagining future industrial plants, is one of them

Over the last year, Operations Engineer magazine has highlighted the many uses of virtual reality (VR) technology in industry. For maintenance personnel, VR can be used to visualise equipment and predict and plan for repairs. For new engineers, meanwhile, VR can be used to provide training, placing the user into a virtual environment and away from real dangers. (See www.is.gd/okejer and www.is.gd/egamac).

Another use, that many companies are beginning to realise, is its ability to aid in the design of new plants or redesign of existing plant layouts. VR for the latter is of particular importance, especially if a site needs to reconfigure its layout because production is ramping up or a new product is going live, but it can’t take itself offline.

Indeed, this technology can act as a visual portal into the what if. What if this part of the plant went here? What if we moved these machines 90 degrees? What if operators were to spend less time collecting components? VR technology can definitely help answer such questions, as some industrial companies are starting to show.


The author toured Siemens Congleton Digital Factory in Cheshire during May – a working manufacturing plant that uses a wide range of Industry 4.0 processes and advanced manufacturing methods to produce over 1.2 million electrical devices, including 500,000 variable speed drives (VSDs), per year.

The Congleton factory utilises leading-edge technologies, including VR, digital twinning, Internet of Things, advanced robotics, cloud technology and additive manufacturing, to aid in the making process. During the visit, delegates were given a guided tour of the Siemens digitalisation journey and got to experience Siemens’ Virtual CAVE (Computer Aided Visual Environment), a 3D glasses-enabled demo of the ‘digital factory floor’.

Siemens says that the idea of virtualisation is a simple one. In essence, you take your assets, such as raw materials, belts, drives and components, and put them into a software package to create a virtual factory (an exact replica of the real factory). The virtual factory enables users to take a real-time big-picture view, identify areas of improvement and prevent problems from occurring in the real factory, as well as add more innovation, flexibility and productivity.

Indeed, Siemens itself has used the 3D virtual factory to experiment with different setups. Graham Tapp, lean operations manager at Siemens Congleton, gave one example to delegates involving the recent introduction of a new VSD model called the G120X, whereby the VR Cave was used to experiment with the factory placement and design of new production cells. “[The cave acts as] a safety net and speeds up implementation,” he said.

Health and safety also came into the demo, with Tapp giving an ergonomic example around another production cell. The VR Cave could detail all components attached to the cell and allowed the user to walk around the cell and take it apart. Tapp explained that a component basket was originally placed too high and was causing some operatives to stretch, resulting in injuries. To combat this, workers were invited into the cave and simulated where they thought the component basket would be better placed.

“Every new cell runs through this process,” Tapp added. “We have saved four weeks from a 12-week process by changing [to this way of working].”


Another company utilising VR is global consulting and engineering firm Bilfinger Tebodin, which now offers clients what is say is ‘the very latest in digital technology’, to design both new facilities and change existing plants (pictured).

One element of this is Building Information Modelling (BIM), a collaborative way of working, which unlocks more efficient methods of designing, creating and maintaining of assets. BIM is now widely used, and increasingly specified as mandatory for both residential and commercial construction.

Ian Dunkley, MD of Bilfinger Tebodin in the United Kingdom, comments: “BIM offers clients incredible advantages when investing in new facilities. Modern industrial processes can be complex, partly due to the number of stakeholders and different engineering disciplines required. BIM enables all the information to be shared during the design process and enhances communications across the project team, wherever they are in the world.

“Our engineers are able to design complete process and industrial plants digitally, from concept to construction, with innovative solutions to industrial design challenges. This seamless collaboration produces considerable savings and dramatically reduces costs and project timescales. Designs can be optimised not just in 3D and 4D, but right up to 7D, to incorporate future maintenance costs. It creates a common environment for all stakeholders which can be viewed in virtual reality.”

The technology has been successfully applied by Bilfinger Tebodin on the Great Wall Motors Company’s car factory in Russia. This giant facility (225,000 m2), with a production capacity of 150,000 vehicles per year, was designed by Bilfinger Tebodin involving more than 100 engineers across seven countries.

Another digital tool Bilfinger Tebodin has developed is ‘Industrial 360°’, a scanning system that captures industrial sites in a photorealistic way. This, together with 3D point data from the site itself, creates a transparent information model in HD. The virtual walkthrough can then be used for design modifications, maintenance objectives, inspections, turnarounds and training.

The company says that the technology has been used for factory modifications at large petrochemical companies, HAZOP studies and updates of safety valve calculations, new laboratories in the pharmaceutical sector, renovation of an outdated production unit in the food sector, and expansion of an existing glue-production facility.

Continues Dunkley: “The two technologies, for projected and existing facilities, are great examples of how important we view this digital future and the innovative service we can now offer to clients, not only in the UK but on a global basis. We have over 40 engineers of diverse disciplines at our office in Warrington, and are already in conversations with a number of clients about the benefits of and applications for the new technology – the future is definitely digital.”


These are just some of the use cases of VR and facility layout. Indeed, the design of a facility can have a powerful impact on productivity, as Simone Bruckner, MD at power resistor manufacturer Cressall Resistors, says, an efficient layout facilitates increased workflow, information and material around the site, while if a factory is not designed with efficiency in mind, it can hinder overall profitability.

“An inefficient layout leads to waste. As a facility expands, it can be difficult to find a place for everything. If workstations are set up illogically, the production line can quickly become muddled and personnel may disrupt other processes in order to complete tasks – lessening the time spent working on the product,” he explains.

“To maximise productivity, every company needs a sound production plan. When assessing how to optimise a facility’s productivity, people, materials, space and equipment must all be considered. Effective planning hinges on a knowledge of the facility’s key activities. When considering the movement around a factory, it is important to optimise the space so that it fits production needs, while making the best use of the available area. This can be achieved by reorganising the shopfloor and redefining key areas.

“Though it is important to assign sufficient space for automation equipment, the space should also be designed with people in mind. For example, areas containing high voltage test equipment must accommodate both room for the equipment and space for personnel to safely carry out testing. The planning itself can also be optimised. Gone are the days of paper drawings, as design and software planning applications can create a digital factory model to review and analyse.”

Adam Offord

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