Plug and model simulation tools for automation software development suites

Simulation, modeling, and virtual commissioning are becoming easier to apply on different levels in automation. Interfaces to third-party simulation tools may be built into your software development suite already.

By John Kowal April 2, 2019

The process of commissioning a machine can be accelerated and streamlined with virtual commissioning. It minimizes risk and ensures project deadlines and quality targets are met. The underlying simulation capabilities provide a digital twin required for emerging Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) architectures.

The scope and level of detail needed for the simulation are defined during the requirements phase. While modeling certain machine parts is enough in some cases, a full machine model sometimes is required. This model also might include infrastructure and material transport.

Using the model, it is possible to generate automatically an entire program or individual function block in C, C++, or any IEC 61131-3 programming language. This ensures reusability and flexibility throughout hardware-in-the-loop (HiL) testing, rapid prototyping, and serial machine production.

The model is tested by simulating a variety of defined scenarios. The model can be refined continually as components are sized through testing and verification is supported by diagnostic tools and 3-D graphics.

Testing performed during virtual commissioning can range from simple logical sequences to complex, critical scenarios to ensure the overall efficiency and quality of the machine’s hardware and software.

A simulation concept is developed to meet the defined requirements, and it determines which simulation tools will be used. Automation suppliers offer an array of tools for different types of simulation, including automated code generation, machine simulation, electrical drawings, and fieldbus and OPC communications.

The generated code should be able to be integrated seamlessly into the supplier’s hardware and software portfolio. The virtual model can be used to perform every aspect of software development from function testing to virtual commissioning.

Functional mock-up interface (FMI) is an independent industry standard and enables models to be exchanged and simulated using various development tools. Plug and model is the principle behind the FMI. Some automation suppliers offer a mechanism for importing functional mock-up units (FMUs) in accordance with the FMI 2.0 standard. FMUs are integrated seamlessly as function blocks in some automation software suites.

Track system simulation

More machine components are entering the marketplace as modules from automation suppliers. That includes an integrated digital twin capability to simulate operation and performance before committing to the actual hardware, and before reconfiguration of installed systems as required in IIoT architecture.

When developing automated assembly and production machinery, for example, it’s important to optimize the number and configuration of shuttles and diverters and ensure shuttles do not collide, cross virtual barriers, or violate configurable speed limits. Generally, fewer shuttles may be required than first anticipated, as non-sequential track systems are more efficient than conventional conveyor systems.

FDA-compliant track and trace also benefits from software that links the product data with the respective shuttles and thus makes the manufacturing process traceable.

Process-oriented programming

Simulation begins with an application created using process-oriented programming provided as part of the machine module development package. A software engineer defines rules for how the shuttles should behave on the track. The rules become active when shuttles pass virtual trigger points. This makes implementation of motion sequences more efficient and reduces the amount of programming required for individual shuttles.

Simulation, efficient operations

With the integrated simulation options, a developer can run tests to identify the optimum number and speed of shuttles to maximize productivity. The simulation and real plant use the same software. This makes it possible to switch between simulation and real operation at any time. How the shuttles interact with additional mechanical elements such as robots can be visualized in such a system.

Typical capabilities

In such systems, the visualization tool typically displays a 3-D simulation of all movements, as well as subsystems such as robotics and computer numerical control (CNC) axes synchronized to the system. Machine builders and operators can accelerate the commissioning process by validating their designs and sequential programming in advance.

3-D simulation, machine code

When simulations are based on real machine code, no additional software or interfaces are required. This also makes it easy to test, modify, and finalize code in the same software development environment.

A 3-D visualization of the development environment allows the user to fine-tune processes in simulation mode before commissioning. With a few clicks of a mouse, the optimized machine code is then transferred to a target control hardware.

At runtime, the visualization tool processes sensor signals to display machine movements on the human-machine interface (HMI) screen in real time. Also, 3-D visualization can be used to monitor process manufacturing processes.

Integration, simulation help

As controls hardware and software merges with electromechanical systems in a modular format, simulation capability also becomes the responsibility of a system supplier. The supplier should provide an integrated functionality that does not require a third-party simulation package. It also should be accessible through normal programming environments. With manufacturing becoming faster and more flexible, simulation’s role is becoming increasingly important. The capability to select the correct configuration of modules and shuttles and adapt to various production scenarios on an ongoing basis is crucial.

John Kowal is director, business development, B&R Industrial Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Keywords: Simulation, automation software, visualization

Virtual commissioning accelerates and streamlines commissioning machines and helps meet project deadlines.

Plug and model is the principle behind the functional mock-up interface (FMI).

As production lines become faster and more flexible, simulation will become more important.

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What benefits could a simulation model provide to your manufacturing facility?

Author Bio: Director, business development, B&R Industrial Automation Corp