• Digital Twin
September 26, 2023

Virtual Commisioning

3 tips on how to get started with Virtual Commissioning

Virtual commissioning – one of the sweet profits of digitalisation and Industry 4.0. Once implemented it provides many benefits, the route to get there can however be rather tricky with plenty of pitfalls. At Combine we have experience in virtual commissioning in Automation projects, from Embedded as well as PLC systems. In our journey we have made 3 key findings that will help you to get started on a successful virtual commissioning project. In this post we will share these findings and address what virtual commissioning brings to the table.

Ancient commissioning – time to move on

When developing a new machine or plant, the commissioning process, from design through testing to handover, could decide how successful the project becomes. The traditional commissioning process is well established in the Automation industry where the plant is designed, implemented, tested then delivered. Which sounds easy enough and quite nice. In reality though the road to delivery is not that straight forward. As with most things, perfection is not reached the first time around, design and implementation need to be iterated so that bugs can be found and issues fixed. A major part of identifying these are done through verification tests. Which in traditional commissioning is mainly performed when the whole plant is assembled. This is often onsite and rather late in the development.

The onsite testing is usually a gathering of firsts; the first time the whole plant is assembled, the first time subsystems communicate with each other and the first time the control software controls the mechanical movements. Issues are bound to arise. It could be small and easy to fix but it might as well be a time-consuming issue causing delays. Issues found late in a project are always harder to fix than if found early on and may be very costly with fines and prolonged development if delivery is postponed. This makes the onsite testing a critical event with a lot depending on it.


Why go virtual?

A proven solution to these problems being Virtual Commissioning. The major difference from traditional commissioning being that most of the verification tests are performed virtually, with a virtual plant model and a virtual control model. These models are created through the design and implementation phase to have life-like characteristics and behaviour. This enables that simulation and verification being performed virtually. The system design, control model and hardware can be investigated and iterated through MIL/SIL/HIL simulations. Imagine having a control model verified and somewhat tuned long before the physical plant is assembled!

Compared to traditional commissioning the design and implementation phase will require more time using virtual commissioning, but with the following benefits, it may well be worth it!

  • Shorter commissioning time – many issues have been found and fixed long before the onsite verification begins, thus heavily reducing the risk of delay.
  • Start verification tests earlier – which enables issues to arise sooner rather than later in the development process – easier, quicker and cheaper to fix.
  • Deeper understanding throughout the team with a 3D visualisation of the plant – easier to communicate and understand problems or risks.
  • Virtual testing enables possibly dangerous test scenarios to be performed in a risk-free environment – improves plant safety and reduces risk during onsite verification.



Next step – Digital Twin

Another benefit with using virtual commissioning is the opportunities it provides once the plant is up and running and delivered. Since the virtual model of the plant is created it might as well live on. It could be through a digital twin, continuous integration or operator training, or all of them.

Digital twin being the all in version, where sensor data from the physical plant is fed to the digital twin. Opening doors such as management and exploitation of recorded data, fault replication and predictive maintenance. A big investment but with a lot of benefits and possibilities. Even if one chooses not to go all in with a digital twin and its advantages, the virtual model can still provide.Future upgrades and issues with components going end of life may be investigated, developed and verified with the virtual models. Installed and applied to the physical plant once satisfied performance and quality are reached. Limiting the need for access to the physical plant and keeping its downtime to a minimum. By using this kind of Continuous Integration, the virtual models are kept up to date with the physical plant during its lifetime. Letting the tasks of developing upgrades and changing components be rather straight forward even if decades have passed since the plant was built. Which without virtual models can be daunting and time-consuming, therefore costly and not very profitable.

Another possibility is to use the virtual models for operator training. An opportunity for operators to improve their skills, increase plant safety and shorten learning time with the physical plant.

Then it is time for future projects. Once a first virtual model of a plant has been created, parts from it can often be reused and therefore shorten the development of future projects. By storing all virtual models in a library, the chances are that in some future the need to create new models from scratch will be limited.


How to start with virtual commissioning

So where do I sign up and how do I get started? Well, it is not as easy as pressing a button, but at Combine we have gathered 3 key findings that will help you to get started on a successful virtual commissioning project.

  1. Define purpose and requirements
    First of all you need to define the purpose and requirements. Why do you want to go over to virtual commissioning? Which benefits are you looking for? Which problems are you aiming to solve? Answering these questions gets you off to a good start regarding purpose and gives you something to get back to when evaluating the project.
    It is also a good idea to figure out what the long-term vision is – digital twin – predictive maintenance – continuous integration? Knowing this might help you to make a sustainable and smart choice regarding software tools.
    You also need to define the technical requirements; do you have a preference in manufacturers (hardware or software)? Are there any interfaces that must be supported?
  2. Candidates for pilot project
    When the purpose and requirements have been defined, it is time to decide on a suitable pilot project. Choose your plant, software tools and hardware from the requirement specifications. Here it is important to be smart and choose a suitable project to implement virtual commissioning on, maybe a project in a smaller scale? Take the time to find the fitting candidates, it will be worth a lot to get this step right!
  3. Incorporate the work model in future projects
    If virtual commissioning has no place in future projects, why even bother with the pilot? Plan how the new methodology can be incorporated in the existing work model, so that the potential benefits seen in the pilot project can be utilised in future projects.


These tips will help you to achieve a successful virtual commissioning project and get you off to a promising start on the journey. A journey through digitalisation with a lot of goods on the way and plenty to come once the virtual commissioning project is closed. A big investment but a sustainable one that brings you a big step towards Industry 4.0.

MIL – Model in the loop – Simulation with the virtual control model controlling the virtual plant model.

SIL – Software in the loop – Simulation with generated code from control model controlling the virtual plant model.

HIL – Hardware in the loop – Real-time simulation with actual hardware controlling the virtual plant model.

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