Digital Twins: Far more than a pretty picture for manufacturers
- Posted on July 18, 2022
- Estimated reading time 4 minutes
Many manufacturers still operate their factories the old-fashioned way: semi-automated, requiring significant human intervention, with both supply chains and assembly lines isolated from the production lines to which they should be very much connected. But many others are adopting Industry 4.0 solutions and platforms that move them toward the continually evolving state of manufacturing we call Industry X.
For these companies, fully digitized manufacturing is their North Star, their guiding light. They’re bringing real-time operational telemetry, manufacturing execution data, and other contextual data, together in one place, and thus creating real-time insight that has practical, if not profound, implications for themselves and their customers. To do so, they’re using technologies including IoT, streaming big data and advanced analytics and AI. And by doing so, they’re advancing towards agile manufacturing (think “lot size: 1”), product quality, predictive maintenance, supply chain reliability, higher output, faster distribution and, as a result, customer satisfaction.
What ties all this together is digital twins, which create an abstract of the physical factory in the virtual world. The digital twin is the intelligent sibling of the physical twin. Operational teams can interact, discover data, gain insight, and make better, faster decisions. More than a solution, digital twins are a knowledge graph on which you can build countless solutions for a variety of uses, for example, to understand the impact on manufacturing if you modify parts specifications, change QA processes, or adopt or drop vendors. The physical factory can’t tell you the impact of these changes, but its digital twin can.
Sometimes, stunning, visually immersive 3D images are exactly what’s needed, for example, to present the big picture in a control room or on a trade show booth. But digital twins can also power real-time visual and audio warnings on the noisy factory floor, alerting workers to reduced production or quality levels. Digital twins enable you to create new relationships around data, based on an underlying semantic knowledge graph, to help drive data-intensive businesses and unlock hidden business value.
When global candymaker Mars wanted to reduce the amount of “giveaway” – the extra candy it sometimes put, inadvertently, into packaging, Avanade and Accenture came up with a solution based on a digital twin of production lines. The solution cut those giveaways by 80%, saving Mars significant amounts of money per year.
You can also use digital twins to align with the metaverse, the place where the physical and virtual worlds interact. Major companies are piloting such solutions right now. Imagine a display in workers’ safety goggles or attached to their helmets that overlays performance and operating data directly onto physical machines. With a sweep of her gaze across the shop floor, a supervisor could identify machines that exceed – or are about to exceed – safe operating parameters.
More than spotting problems, workers might use the metaverse’s conflation of virtual and physical worlds to direct them through the factory to the machine in question, like passengers following illuminated arrows to get to a safety exit in the dark. Once at the machine, the workers would get a read-out of KPI data, overlaid directly on or alongside the machine, that originates from IoT sensor data from the machine itself. This immersive type of digital twin is moving from concept to production readiness right now.
To solve complex operational problems, advanced analytics and AI hosted on the edge or in the cloud would analyze the data presented by a digital twin, and pinpoint the cause to, say, a malfunctioning piston, which shop-floor workers could also see-through head-mounted displays. If they need knowledgebase content or a consultation with a company expert halfway around the world, they would get this help in real time while they’re interacting with the machine in front of them. The expert and the worker might even “meet” in a metaverse space in which they together manipulate the physical machine by first manipulating its digital twin.
Digital twin isn’t the only technology at play in this example, but it’s an essential one. And its essential characteristic is to put real-time data in the right place at the right time for more effective manufacturing.
Where else might digital twins take us? Beyond the factory and its operations, surely, to include suppliers, partners, distributors and even customers. Digital-twins-across-borders, so to speak, could show how changing supply chain options would impact on-time customer deliveries. Already, Tesla customers can go to a virtual showroom to design their cars. Why not also take them to a virtual shop floor, to observe their cars being built? For the growing number of manufacturers adopting consumer-facing business models, digital twins are ideal for bringing you and your customers together for personalized products.