University of South Carolina preparing students for the factory of the future with Siemens solutions

December 10, 2021

Future Factories Lab in the McNair Cente – Ramy Harik lab

Digital twin helps students understand the value of advanced manufacturing technology

Aerospace is the second-largest industry in South Carolina, with more than 500 aerospace- related companies in the state. The University of South Carolina supports the industry with the only aerospace engineering programs in the state. Offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees, the university is preparing students for exciting careers in aerospace and related engineering fields.

The University of South Carolina is also home to the Ronald McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research, founded in 2011 to support industry through aerospace education, research leadership and industry advancement. The current focus of the McNair Center’s core research includes composite materials and production methods, combustion, predictive maintenance, unmanned vehicles and digital transformation of industry.

In 2017, Siemens donated technology to the McNair Center, including product lifecycle management (PLM) software that perfectly aligns with the center’s focus on digital twin development and digital transformation.

“With Industry 4.0 we are moving to the next level,” says Dr. Ramy Harik, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “We are trying to create practical demonstrations for things such as cyber manufacturing, the digital twin, machine learning, the use of artificial intelligence and all of these elements. The goal is to introduce students, through these demonstrations, to what we call smart manufacturing. It is the integration of information technology and operational technology, where we start sensing equipment and collecting and analyzing data to enhance and optimize manufacturing and take it to the next level.”

Future Factories Lab – test bed for manufacturing technologies

The Future Factories Laboratory at the McNair Center is a research platform for the university founded by Harik that embodies the future of manufacturing.

“It’s powered by a sophisticated digital twin system, as well as Siemens control hardware and Yaskawa industrial robots,” says Max Kirkpatrick, a manufacturing solutions consultant with Siemens Digital Industries Software and a master’s student at the university. “We were donated five industrial robot arms from Yaskawa, and control hardware from Siemens, including a HMI, PLC, field I/O, et cetera. The main goal is to have a comprehensive digital twin of a cell operation – where everything that we see in the real cell is mirrored in the digital model. We can use this digital model for planning. We can use this for testing and validation. We can use this to assess the cell status and health. These sorts of things are all open research questions that we’re looking at in the cell.”

The laboratory is a test bed for many next-generation manufacturing technologies.

“We have many students – from different majors, similar to what a real work experience would be – working on this platform, developing and testing technologies,” says Kirkpatrick.

“We’re also looking at technologies like virtual commissioning and offline programming. We test in the lab, but test in the digital world first.” Harik adds, “We have mechanical, electrical, aerospace, chemical, computer and other engineering majors working together on the cell.”

Advancing system autonomy and robotics

Industry is pushing for more autonomous systems, adaptable robot systems and adaptable schedules, all key areas of focus for the Future Factories lab. “A robot that does one thing over and over and over again is not very adaptable, and it’s not very sustainable for a long-term implementation,” Kirkpatrick explains. “It’s very common in industry that manufacturing systems need to be completely reprogrammed for small changes. It takes a lot of time and money to make the changes.”

One focus area of the lab is computer vision and depth imaging. “We can use a vision system to adapt our robot paths to different objects,” says Kirkpatrick. “We can identify, for instance, a shape, then find a solution where the robot can grasp that shape without having to explicitly program all the individual actions of the robot arm.

Another focus is technology for dynamic scheduling robot operations. “We have built many of robot operations and we know they work, but the order in which they are called up is undetermined and may change based on the order requirements for the cell,” Kirkpatrick explains. “We can use machine learning systems to identify an optimal schedule in real time, and then we run those as they are called up by the machine learning system, and we see the results in our cell. We can test our machine learning algorithms and our scheduling algorithms using the digital twin before we deploy them to the real cell. This avoids any potential problems with robot collisions or mistiming of operations. We can weed those out in the digital model before we deploy to the physical.”

The Future Factories lab is also conducting research in data collection and analytics. The cell includes vibration sensors to gather data for system and robot health monitoring, force sensors, real-time capture of robot coordinates, thermal imaging to analyze temperatures in robot joints, and motion capture software to record robot paths for comparison with motion paths developed using the digital twin.

“We can take this data and aggregate it on edge devices that are provided by Siemens and then take that data into a cloud environment to perform computationally intensive analytics,” says Kirkpatrick. “We can figure out trends and find patterns to determine whether these parameters are key performance indicators of the cell. We use the KPIs to make informed decisions about what to do in the cell. We might change a robot path based off of vibration data, or use temperature data to identify overheating problems, then use the data to extend the lifetime of the cell and potentially improve our manufacturing rate and quality.”

Digital twin evangelists

Dr. Harik is an energetic evangelist for digital twin technology. “It’s exactly what it says – the twin of a physical system in the digital world,” Dr. Harik explains. “How can the digital twin help? Instead of creating a physical twin of a floating spacecraft, for example, and performing physical tests, we can use the digital twin to replace this expensive setup. Instead of the physical twin, we can have sensors on the physical object in space. We can analyze the data and run simulations in the digital world to understand when it can fail, how to appropriately service and maintain it and withdraw it from service before failure. Think of it like a prescription that you receive to get ahead of the game. That’s what we do through prescriptive analytics within our Future Factories cell.”

Dr. Harik affirms that the digital twin is not only for manufacturing and industrial equipment. “We can now generalize and use a digital twin in so many different domains – in energy, healthcare, and so on,” he says. “This can help us leverage as much as possible the cycle of sensing a physical element, sending the data to this digital mockup of the physical element to run analysis and scenarios in the digital world, and then pushing back the information to the physical element to help it adjust to perform in an optimal manner.”

Digital twin helps academia, promotes STEM

The University of South Carolina is preparing to use its digital twin technology to engage high-school students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities. Students who complete the activities can log into a system and remotely move a robot and view the twin of the robot moving in the digital space “

Focus on job readiness

Understanding, applying and implementing the digital twin within the University of South Carolina ecosystem is instrumental for industry, and for partnerships that the university is weaving between academia and industry. It is also instrumental for preparing students for industry. “There are general things that graduates need to know and today, no industry can survive without the ability to get data from their systems and transform their data into business intelligence,” Dr. Harik says. “Using the digital twin in different classes within the university ecosystem helps our students become job-ready students.”