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Virtual engineering turns ideas into products faster

04 September 2012

Researchers are using virtual engineering to achieve simultaneous product design and manufacturing systems development for the production of membrane filter elements.

Image courtesy of  Lanxess

Together with the specialty chemicals company Lanxess, Fraunhofer researchers have engineered and built a system that produces reverse osmosis membrane filter elements for water treatment in record time. Virtual engineering allowed both research and development to proceed simultaneously.

Only around 0.3 percent of the world’s water supply can be used directly as drinking water. At the same time, the world population is growing steadily, thus increasing the need for clean water. Water treatment technologies such as reverse osmosis will be instrumental in ensuring that we have enough to drink in the future.Such membrane filtration systems remove substances such as salts, pesticides, viruses and bacteria from water.

In early 2010, the specialty chemicals company Lanxess decided to embark on a new business venture: water treatment. It planned to have a high-tech production facility built by the Autumn of 2011 in Bitterfeld, at the site of its subsidiary, IAB Ionenaustauscher GmbH.

This ambitious plan meant that both the product and the manufacturing technology had to be designed and ready for manufacturing in a very short time. Lanxess called on the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF) to help it realise the project. 

The researchers had little time for preparation. “Research and development had to proceed in parallel, which is why we relied on virtual engineering from the outset,” says Professor Ulrich Schmucker, manager of the Virtual Engineering Business Unit at the Fraunhofer IFF. “It enabled us to start on work very early, which would not get done in a conventional approach until the final stage of development.” 

Simulating filter elements on the computer 
The joint development team first analysed the product features on a computer with the aid of various simulations. This was necessary in order to determine important manufacturing parameters, such as speed, which also played a role later when the system was designed. Researchers subsequently used the virtual models of the semi-automatic system to run through and optimise the individual process steps. They were also able to estimate the manpower it would require. 

In this way, the designers had clear specifications for the ensuing CAD. But that was not all. The researchers also developed a special method that enabled them to start programming a control system based only on the relatively rough CAD model. Such programming is usually not done until the equipment has been built and hooked up, making it virtually impossible to modify once set up.

“We connect the real control system to the virtual model, then we watch the movements of all of the parts relative to one another on the monitor, explains Prof. Schmucker. "This enables the programmer to check the correctness of sequences, eliminate errors and exceptions or even perform collision analyses,”  When necessary, the design engineer makes changes before the equipment has even been built. 

Not least, consulting with a client becomes significantly easier. “Ideas about a user interface’s appearance often tend to be very abstract at the beginning,” explains Prof. Schmucker. “When the client has a clear mental picture, however, it is much easier to plan and identify the required control elements expediently.”

The decision to enter a new realm of development with VR models proved its worth for Lanxess, too. Jean-Marc Vesselle, Head of the Ion Exchange Resins Business Unit, is convinced and blieves that virtual engineering will certainly take on greater importance for the company in its future activities

Membrane elements have now been being manufactured in Bitterfeld since the Autumn of last year. Experts from the Fraunhofer IFF have already started working on the follow-up technology: a fully automatic system will commence operation this month. 


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