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See that green squiggle down the middle of the accompanying photo? It's the line of demarcation between an actual production line and its computer-generated simulation. Although you might think that a souped-up, UNIX-based workstation was necessary to generate this simulation, it wasn't. It was created on a PC in a Windows NT environment using PS-Engine-Plant Design and PS-Engine RobotStudio, a suite of software modeling tools from Prosolvia, Inc. (Troy, MI).

At a recent user's conference, Prosolvia software engineers showed off some of PS-Engine's finer qualities. After a few minutes, it was clear that the company's holistic philosophy behind the software, what Prosolvia calls "digital plant technology," goes beyond the typical simulation system. That is, not only does it provide a very accurate, real-time version of a particular production facility, but it operates like the real one would, too. This makes it easier for floor managers to perform finite scheduling tasks, and easier to estimate a project's cost, generate bills of materials, and justify capital equipment expenditures, among other things.

Images are developed using CAD drawings to create models of machines, material handling systems, robots, and even workpieces. Users are not left to their own devices to stumble through building their own digital plant model. Wizards, templates, and the ability to import data from previously made simulations done on other software facilitate the task. Preprogrammed logical rules help narrow the possibilities as objects come to points in the process where they could go several ways. To add, subtract, move, or otherwise manipulate the configuration of machinery, conveyors, and other production components, users simply click on an element, and drag it to where they want it.

Once the model is built, data imported from ERP, MRP, and PDM systems are used to mimic how things are actually going on the floor, instead of using a programmer's best guess. Correcting line problems or creating new production lines for a new product cycle can be done discretely, and tested using "what-if" scenarios that highlight problems and conflicts.

But so far, all of this is just simulation. Slick-looking, sophisticated, 3D simulation, but simulation nonetheless. Where you really begin to see why Prosolvia thinks it can be the company that bridges the gap between virtual reality and reality is with its RobotStudio module.

RobotStudio follows a logical process to not only simulate a robot's motion during a specific application, but to go from "let's pretend" to "let's do by creating the motion control programming," as well. Users first set up the station, making sure the right robot has been chosen for the application, that there's enough room in the work cell, and so on. Then a process is created. By dragging and dropping with the mouse, a series of movements is created. Special instructions—such as rotate, pick-up, put down, and others—can be added along the way for more complex actions.

Once a series of actions is created, it is verified and optimized. At this point, the motions are stored as a collection of frames structured into a path for the robot to follow. For doubting Thomases who don't quite trust the validity of the drag-and-drop programming method, the programming syntax can be called up and read or changed at any time in the programming process.

This sounds like a long, drawn-out process, but all of this programming and processing really takes place as the programmer drags and drops. Verification takes a few minutes more.

And, of course, the simulation/program created in this mode can be imported into Plant Design as part of the digital plant simulation.

Both PS-Engine-Plant Design and PS-Engine-RobotStudio integrate into a highly flexible, capable system. Their open architecture allows them to run on various types of hardware (including portable PCs) and operating systems, and they can be scaled to suit the specific needs of a particular company. The software can also be scaled to suit the needs or skill level of the user. There's an operator mode, a service staff mode, and modes for engineers and managers.

By the way: the actual production line is below the squiggly green line.