Theoretical knowledges should always be applied during practical sessions in the education. However it’s not always easy to implement it. If we take here the case of mechatronic, this requires laboratory materials that can be expensive.
In the case of an automation class where students learn how to program a PLC (Programmable Logic Controllers), it would be necessary to have a small learning station including different materials such as :
- The mechanic assembly
- The electrical installation
- The pneumatic installation (if necessary)
- The programmable Logic Controller
It is easy to imagine that too much students won’t be able to work all together on the same learning station. It is then required to have several learning stations in the laboratory. But all those stations represents a cost that schools or training centres are not always able to bear. In this context the use of digital twins can be a mean of solving this problem. The digitalization of the learning stations will allow the schools or the training centres to train their students without physical stations.
A digital twin, a 3D virtual representation of the mechanical assembly in this case, can be used to test the software. All the movements and functions can be tested on the digital model, as well as the physics like gravity or forces and collisions.
The controller can be as well simulated. Some PLC manufacturers offer emulation software so that you can test your program in a simulated controller, without the need of having a physical one. It is therefore possible to train students programming stations without material. The controller and the physical station are both simulated in a virtual environment.
There are a few more benefits with this solution. Training in a virtual environment is safe. There is no risk for breaking materials or hurt oneself.
The number of different physical learning stations available for the students is often limited. It is indeed costly to have different stations. Sometimes there can be a space limitation too. But it is interesting to have different ones, so that the students can practise on different stations and write different programs. There is no such limitation in the virtual environment. It is possible to have as many digital stations as possible. There is more choices.
Also the students can learn a new skill that become very popular nowadays: virtual prototyping. Not only can they learn how to program a controller but they can learn to develop a virtual prototype. It can be linked with a 3D design software class where the students will realize the design of the station. Going from the design to the programming give the student a glimpse of a A to Z project and they can realize the importance of virtual prototyping while detecting all the issues and solving them in the virtual environment, without to have to build anything.
In our learning module we will review a small list of software’s edible to that purpose. This is not a comprehensive list as there exist a lot of different solutions but the three following can be easily found in education environments :
- Factory IO
- Siemens NX Mechatronic Concept Designer