Siemens all in on digitalization and the digital twin

Sep 18, 2017 | Hot Topics

I spent most of a week with Siemens –the PLM team plus an assortment of colleagues from across the AG and maybe 150 media and analysts– to learn more about the PLM business, the recent Mentor Graphics and TASS acquisitions, and to try to gauge how the AG views its PLM offspring. Lots of thoughts about it all, but my main takeaway from the event is that Siemens considers the $10 billion it has spent on PLMish acquisitions (UGS, LMS, CD-adapco, Mentor, TASS and many more) to have been well worth it. The AG considers software to be an important part of its Vision 2020 strategy, which continues the push into digitalization.

Jan Mrosik, CEO of the Digital Factory division (organizational home of the PLM business) highlighted Siemens’ evolution from electrification to automation and, now, to digitalization using the slide to the left.

We need to remember that Siemens has been in business since 1847, and has seen and created many changes during that 170 year timespan. The company doesn’t seem to think in the 10-20 year timeframes of most of the companies in our software space, but looks at  much longer timelines which plays well in a global environment where electrification is still top-of-mind, never mind automation and digitalization. Until emerging economies have met their electrification challenges, the other two can’t happen.

But back to our PLMish world, which is firmly in the upper two tiers of Mr. Mrosik’s vision. Siemens sees digitalization as its growth engine, and its software businesses as a large part of that success. Mr. Mrosik said that Siemens’ software revenue is growing ahead of their markets, but since Siemens doesn’t give financials for the PLM business, we can’t be certain what that means. However, a €3.3 billion software business (and that’s before including Mentor), expected to grow at 8% per year, is big and to be reckoned with.

One of the ways the company chose to highlight the value of its PLMish acquisitions was by mentioning, early and often, that it has spent $10 billion to build out the portfolio. And during the executive Q&A, PLM CEO Tony Hemmelgarn didn’t rule out more acquisitions for technology or people that would add breadth and/or depth to the offering.

As the week progressed, there were product briefings galore, mostly showing progress in addressing new industries such as electronics and semiconductor or advances in technology, such as the tighter integration of the many simulation brands in Simcenter and the ease of data discovery in Teamcenter. One of hte most impressive was Automation Designer, an NX 12 solution that will automatically generate PLC code for, and allow virtual simulation of, a production line’s manufacturing automation system. That’s actually a really big deal, since it enables an enterprise to work more coherently and in parallel. They’re able to use product design information to start manufacturing process and production system design as soon as information becomes available — which enables them to make more cost-conscious decisions about components and processes and to validate manufacturing and assembly processes alongside product design.

Siemens used an electronics industry example to explain how this would work (and to neatly tie in its new Mentor capabilities): Electronics products are typically boards and software in some sort of mechanical housing. Each is typically designed independently, then the components are combined for fit and function; finally each discipline sends their components off for manufacturing engineering (called fabrication engineering and assembly engineering in the electronics world), fabrication and assembly // manufacturing execution in the mechanical world and, finally, box build, where it all comes together. There’s a lot that can go wrong in these processes, so designing, simulating and optimizing the various production processes becomes key. There are human motion and effectivity studies, programming and testing robots … and writing the PLC (programmable logic controller) code. PLCs are the industrial computers that control the speed of a conveyor belt, the actions of a robotic arm, the path of a pick and place machine. Creating a digital version of the machine and its controlling code enables a production designer to lay out the process and virtually commission the production line by validating that the the PLC code correctly drives each machine. Siemens told us that physical commissioning is time-consuming and expensive, since you’re using the production line as well as potentially very expensive parts to validate the process; virtual commissioning will save both time and money — and could even lead to more creative designs since some of the risk of disjointed design and manufacturing processes are removed.

Not at all coincidentally, Siemens makes the vast line of SIMATIC PLCs. With NX 12, it seems that one more part of vision for the UGS acquisition is finally realized. Users will now be able to answer “Can I manufacture this?” with an intelligent hand-off from design to manufacturing, creating a digital twin not only of the product but also of the manufacturing process. Whether this will enable Siemens to sell more SIMATIC controllers remains to be seen, but it now can call on all of its accounts and present an alternative production design process. Similarly, the PLM group can now call on SIMATIC programmers and present a more user-friendly, design-integrated approach to PLC programming in situations where that’s applicable.It’s my understanding the Automation Designer will generate PLC code that conforms to international standards, so is not in any way limited to working with Siemens PLCs. Siemens arranged a demo for us of the NX-based Automation Designer creating PLC code and virtually driving a machine — it was impressive..

So, back to the electronics example: With the release of NX 12, the box build and PCB assembly processes are defined separately, simulated and then validated together. The production lines and processes are virtually commissioned, as production designers can validate their PLC code well before any production parts show up. To recap, Automation Designer is an NX 12 Digital Factory solution that lets users design the electrical and automation environments for a production system or machine, generate its electrical schematics and PLC program.

This is already far too long –raise your hand if you’re still reading– but another main takeaway from the event is that simulation continues to be at the core of the Siemens PLM offering. Mentor Graphics gives Siemens more tools to address makers of smart products—cars, planes, phones, machines—whose embedded electronics must be designed and simulated, and whose manufacturing processes seem quite different from a typical mechanism’s. I still want to learn more about this, but Mentor brings what sounds like an impressive array of simulation tools, both for the electronics themselves and for their manufacturing processes. TASS, an acquisition just announced, gets Siemens into autonomous vehicles as well as strengthening its offerings for vehicle safety simulation. Simcenter continues the vision to integrate all of the simulation and test assets at Siemens’ disposal, to create a full suite of predictive engineering and test solutions. Are we there yet? No; work is ongoing to integrate UIs, make data more easily usable from one application to the next, and so on but Siemens is committed to creating a systems-driven product development environment that includes multi-domain physics, and integration with other design processes via the Teamcenter backbone.

Siemens used the digital twin as its theme for the event. The term has been hijacked and diluted but Siemens seems to mean this: create an accurate digital representation of a physical product, from conceptual design onwards through production planning and manufacturing. Layer in data from the operating, physical product and use that, maybe in a real-time simulation but certainly during design of the next iteration, to accurately represent its behavior. Now, for “physical product” substitute car, phone, chip, printed circuit board, production line, wind turbine, ship … “Twin” takes on a very much expanded definition when it’s the product and its production process and its operating life. THAT’S what Siemens means with digital twin, and the vision it’s trying to fulfill.

Many of the pieces are in place; the quest now is integrating them all in a way that captures what’s needed without overwhelming, manages it to make it useful and serves it out to many different types of constituents. To bring this post full circle, Mr. Mrosik says that Siemens AG uses these tools in its own product design, manufacturing planning and manufacturing plants and can, sometimes, be the software groups’ most demanding customer. Everything that was presented at the analyst event was informed by this sensibility: we use what we make, it’s tested and it works. That simple, but very, very hard to get to.

Speaking of many types of constituents … Boston’s Solid Edge University coincided with the last day of the analyst event and I was able to attend the keynote session where Siemens’ Dan Staples and a colleague galloped through the newest features in Solid Edge. If you have the chance, and your city’s event hasn’t happened yet, GO! Lots of good stuff there that has this bigger vision in mind, scaled for a smaller enterprise and, perhaps, different way of working.

Note: Siemens graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The title image is a photo I took during the executive Q&A session; PLM CEO Tony Hemmelgarn, standing, is flanked by his management team. The slide is from Mr. Mrosik’s presentation, made available to me by Siemens PLM.