What Is a Virtual Factory, and How They’re Making Industrial Digitalization a Reality

Virtual factories are helping manufacturers unlock new possibilities, from planning to operations.
by James McKenna

To address the shift to electric vehicles, increased semiconductor demand, manufacturing onshoring, and ambitions for greater sustainability, manufacturers are investing in new factory developments and re-engineering their existing facilities.

These projects often run over budget and schedule, due to complex and manual planning processes, legacy technology infrastructure, and disconnected tools, data and teams.

Virtual factories and digitalization address these challenges, and manufacturers are embracing them. A virtual factory, powered by technologies like digital twins, the Universal Scene Description (OpenUSD) ecosystem and generative AI, can enable new possibilities, from planning to operations.

What Is a Virtual Factory?

A virtual factory is a physically accurate representation of a real factory. These digital twins of factories allow manufacturers to model, simulate, analyze and optimize their production processes, resources and operations without the need for a physical prototype or pilot plant.

Benefits of Virtual Factories

Virtual factories unlock many benefits and possibilities for manufacturers, including:

  • Streamlined Communication: Instead of teams relying on in-person meetings and static planning documents for project alignment, virtual factories streamline communication and ensure that critical design and operations decisions are informed by the most current data.
  • Contextualized Planning: During facility design, construction and commissioning, virtual factories allow project stakeholders to visualize designs in the context of the entire facility and production process. Planning and operations teams can compare and verify built structures with the virtual designs in real time and decrease costs by identifying errors and incorporating feedback early in the review process.
  • Optimized Facility Designs: Connecting virtual factories to simulations of processes and discrete events enables teams to optimize facility designs for production and material flow, ergonomic work design, safety and overall utilization.
  • Intelligent and Optimized Operations: Operations teams can integrate their virtual factories with valuable production data from Internet of Things technology at the edge, and tap AI to drive further optimizations.

Virtual Factories: A Testing Ground for AI and Robotics

Robotics developers are increasingly using virtual factories to train and test AI and autonomous systems that run in physical factories. For example, virtual factories can enable developers and manufacturing teams to simulate digital workers and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), vision AI agents and sensors to create a centralized map of worker activity throughout a facility. By fusing data from simulated camera streams with multi-camera tracking, developers can generate occupancy maps that inform optimal AMR routes.

Developers can also use these physically accurate virtual factories to train and test AI agents capable of managing their robot fleets, to ensure AI-enabled robots can adapt to real-world unpredictability and to identify streamlined configurations for human-robot collaboration.

What Are the Foundations of a Virtual Factory

Building large-scale, physically accurate virtual factories that unlock these transformational possibilities requires bringing together many tools, data formats and technologies to harmonize the representation of real-world aspects in the digital world.

Originally invented by Pixar Animation Studios, OpenUSD encompasses a collection of tools and capabilities that enable the data interoperability developers and manufacturers require to achieve their digitalization goals.

OpenUSD’s core superpower is flexible data modeling. 3D input can be accepted from source applications and combined with a variety of data, including from computer-aided design software, live sensors, documentation and maintenance records, through a unified data pipeline. OpenUSD enables developers to share these data types across different simulation tools and AI models, providing insights for all stakeholders. Data can be synced from the factory floor to the digital twin, surfacing real-time insights for factory managers and teams.

By developing virtual factory solutions on OpenUSD, developers can enhance collaboration for factory teams, allowing them to review plans, discuss optimization opportunities and make decisions in real time.

To support and accelerate the development of the OpenUSD ecosystem, Pixar, Adobe, Apple, Autodesk and NVIDIA formed the Alliance for OpenUSD, which is building open standards for USD in core specification, materials, geometry and more.

Industrial Use Cases for Virtual Factories

To unlock the potential of virtual factories, industry leaders including Autodesk, Continental, Pegatron, Rockwell Automation, Siemens and Wistron are developing virtual-factory solutions that interoperate with OpenUSD and NVIDIA Omniverse, a platform of application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits that enable developers to build applications for complex 3D and industrial digitalization workflows based on OpenUSD.

FlexSim, an Autodesk company, uses OpenUSD to enable factory teams to analyze, visualize and optimize real-world processes with its simulation modeling for complex systems and operations. The discrete-event simulation software provides an intuitive drag-and-drop interface to create 3D simulation models, account for real-world variability, run “what-if” scenarios and perform in-depth analyses.

Developers at Continental, a leading German automotive technology company, developed ContiVerse, a factory planning and manufacturing operations application on OpenUSD and NVIDIA Omniverse. The application helps Continental optimize factory layouts and plan production processes collaboratively, leading to an expected 13% reduction in time to market. 

Partnering with IT consulting and digital services provider SoftServe, Continental also developed Industrial Co-Pilot, which combines AI-driven insights with immersive visualization to deliver real-time guidance and predictive analytics to engineers. This is expected to reduce maintenance effort and downtime by 10%.

Pegatron, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of smartphones and consumer electronics, is developing virtual-factory solutions on OpenUSD to accelerate the development of new factories — as well as to minimize change orders, optimize operations and maximize production-line throughput in existing facilities.

Rockwell Automation is integrating NVIDIA Omniverse Cloud APIs and OpenUSD with its Emulate3D digital twin software to bring manufacturing teams data interoperability, live collaboration and physically based visualization for designing, building and operating industrial-scale digital twins of production systems.

Siemens, a leading technology company for automation, digitalization and sustainability and a member of the Alliance for OpenUSD, is adopting Omniverse Cloud APIs within its Siemens Xcelerator Platform, starting with Teamcenter X, the industry-leading cloud-based product lifecycle management software. This will help teams design, build and test next-generation products, manufacturing processes and factories virtually, before they’re built in the physical world.

Wistron, a leading global technology service provider and electronics manufacturer, is digitalizing new and existing factories with OpenUSD. By developing virtual-factory solutions on NVIDIA Omniverse, Wistron enables its factory teams to collaborate remotely to refine layout configurations, optimize surface mount technology and in-circuit testing lines, and transform product-on-dock testing.

With these solutions, Wistron has achieved a 51% boost in worker efficiency and 50% reduction in production process times. Layout optimization and real-time monitoring have decreased defect rates by 40%. And construction time on Wistron’s new NVIDIA DGX factory was cut in half, from about five months to just two and a half months.

Learn more about developing advanced, generative AI-enabled virtual factory solutions at the Virtual Factory Use Case page. Developers can get started with a reference architecture that provides an overview of components and capabilities to consider when developing virtual-factory solutions.

Get started with NVIDIA Omniverse by downloading the standard license free, access OpenUSD resources, and learn how Omniverse Enterprise can connect your team. Stay up to date on Instagram, Medium and X. For more, join the Omniverse community on the forums, Discord server, Twitch and YouTube channels. 

Featured visual courtesy of Siemens.