Plant operations can be improved with simulation software

With product variety on the rise, automotive suppliers are trying to cope with ever more complex production processes. Especially small and medium-sized companies are facing huge challenges.

One solution is the digital factory. Automakers and their tier-1 suppliers have taken a leading role in introducing digital simulation technology.

But, says Robert Kuttner, head of German planning consultants IFP: “For most small and medium-sized companies the methods of the digital factory are virgin territory.”

Interest is growing, however, mostly because customer requirements are changing so rapidly. That boosts demand for process simulation.

Smaller companies need to overcome weak IT support before they can implement virtual scenarios, says IFP’s Kuttner. “The existing ERP systems are often inflexible and not particularly transparent,” he said.

To deal with this, companies are implementing special software to dynamically simulate processes. The software helps predict likely scenarios for specific business cases and offers solutions for production as well as logistics issues.

Planning departments can then build scenarios for the whole supply chain, most often for an entire year. Processes can be improved, the right machinery can be bought or leased and warehousing requirements can be calculated.

The proper simulation software replaces the old Excel spreadsheets with an easy-to-understand on-screen overview. With the stroke of a few keys, a manager can see all relevant data, estimate his purchasing requirements and simulate the effects of a particular problem on operations.

The software will help answer such questions as whether it makes sense to swap out a supplier that fails to deliver on time, or how long it will take to repair a broken machine. “Virtual mechanics” are brought in for the repair before it actually happens.

Dynamic process simulation is particularly useful in the planning of a new factory or the planned expansion of an old one. But while automakers and big suppliers almost always use software for this purpose, smaller companies remain sceptical.

One stumbling block is the costs of acquiring the software. Another is the long training periods needed to bring personnel up to speed. And smaller companies are wary of the prospect of staff dedicated permanently to the virtual planning process. “They often rather bring in an external firm again and start a new planning phase,”Kuttner said.

-By Gert Reiling