Virtual manufacturing (VM) is the use of computers to model, simulate and optimize the critical operations and entities in a factory plant. Virtual manufacturing started as a way to design and test machine tools but has since expanded to encompass production processes and the products themselves. The main technologies used in VM include computer-aided design (CAD), 3D modeling and simulation software, product lifecycle management (PLM), virtual reality, high-speed networking and rapid prototyping.
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Virtual manufacturing provides an organization with the ability to analyze the manufacturability of a part or product as well as evaluate and validate production processes and machinery and train managers, operators and technicians on production systems. There are three main subcategories of VM:
- Design-centered VM provides information about the manufacturing process to engineers and designers so they can optimize products for production purposes or learn how production issues might impact product design. They can also save money by testing 3D product models and processes instead creating of physical prototypes.
- Production-centered VM simulates manufacturing processes so they can be tested and optimized.
- Control-centered VM simulates the controls that are used to run the actual production processes.
VM can be extended to multiple manufacturers and suppliers, creating in effect a virtual manufacturing network for collaborating on production and sharing models and other types of information. It can also be used to assess business risks and identify potential breakdowns in machine tools and other equipment. The market for specialized VM software consists mostly of niche vendors that often focus on one aspect, such as robotics simulation. However, many vendors of CAD, 3D modeling and PLM software support the modeling and simulation of a "virtual" product, process or machine -- sometimes called a digital twin -- that is central to virtual manufacturing.