Virtual vs. real

March 12, 2010
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, says that eventually, somebody has to get dirty.

At the recent ARC Forum in Orlando, one of my favorite sessions was presented by Tom Lange, director of modeling and simulation at Procter & Gamble. P&G uses simulation to design products, manufacturing processes, and equipment in a methodology it calls “virtual prescience,” which Lange described as knowledge of what’s going to happen in the future.


Lange explained that modeling and simulation have transformed entire industries, beginning with defense and aerospace, then durable goods and now consumer goods. Developing and testing using physical prototypes slows innovation, so P&G builds and tests virtual prototypes using computer simulations. Only after the virtual prototypes pass muster does the company move on to the physical prototype stage.

Lange’s examples ranged from new product development to diaper machine loading, bottle design, process reliability — even the effects of the aerodynamics of Pringles chips as they float through the flavor-coating process.

The ARC Forum focused on operational excellence, asset life-cycle management, energy efficiency, and security, all areas where rapid advances in information technology are bringing new levels of performance by leveraging the knowledge and skills of an ever more limited number of qualified and interested people.

Lange said that at P&G, all modeling and simulation activities share a common five-step work process:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Gather input data
  3. Solve the equations
  4. Display and validate
  5. Shape decisions

The same steps underlie most any effort at improving a process or solving a problem. Just last week, my car and I slid to the side of the road — that was a problem. I got out and gathered data by observing that the right front wheel was no longer connected to the lower control arm. Solving the equations led to a short-term decision to call a tow truck.

When you do it with computers, simulations, and virtual reality, it’s sexy stuff. Looking at beautiful 3-D videos, seeing the lifeblood of a plant distilled into a single screen, and drilling down to exploded parts diagrams almost makes it seem like a person could do real work while sitting behind a screen.

But just because it’s convincing doesn’t make it true — ask the boys on Wall Street. The tow truck driver slowly and carefully dug down into the snow to find and connect to the factory lift points. I thought he was handling my old car with care and respect until he mentioned his recent vasectomy.

The data you collect and the equations you solve have to reflect reality — ask the investment bankers. My maintenance database showed proper use of the original castle nut, a torque wrench, and a cotter pin when I assembled that lower ball joint after replacing the clutch last fall. I was virtually certain I did it right. In reality, the nut was gone.

Above all, virtual virtuosity means nothing if reality doesn’t change. Real work still has to be done with wrenches and screwdrivers — ask any space shuttle astronaut.

That fact of life is abundantly clear here at Plant Services. We gather information, choose the most interesting aspects and articles, clarify and refine them, make them beautiful and entertaining, and present them to you in myriad forms of virtual reality. But it means nothing until it causes you to do something, or do it differently.

Almost everything we publish has to have a reason — an incentive or inspiration for you to make a change. We have our ways of staying on top of your concerns, and use our understanding of them to drive our information gathering and filtering process. We design the results to catch your eye and engineer them to hold your attention.

But we don’t succeed until you do.

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