Digital factories, digital twins, and the Internet of Things
Digitization. It’s a game-changing tool that many leading manufacturers have already invested in. In late 2015, Adidas opened Speedfactory in Germany, a highly automated manufacturing facility that pairs a small workforce with digital technologies, such as 3D printing and robotics. Last year, Toronto-based Scotiabank opened its Digital Factory that lets employees enter their office or buy lunch from the in-house kitchen with the wave of their hand. (Who needs security badges when biometric technology is available?)
Digital factories — which let equipment virtually connect and communicate — are transforming the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of manufacturing. In fact, efficiency gains rank as the top reasons many companies are going digital. According to one report, companies expect their digital investments to pay off in efficiency gains of 12% over five years. With fewer margins for error or time lapses in production, products or services can make it to market faster, allowing revenue streams to expand and grow.
Efficiency is certainly one perk of going digital. Intelligence and predictive analytics are another, thanks to the work of a digital twin. While not a new concept, a digital twin serves as a virtual model or replica of a product or service. It simulates actual objects or real-world conditions for detailed review or analysis. This can help manufacturers virtually design and build new prototypes, or troubleshoot and potentially resolve issues with current products or processes.
What’s transforming twin technology in today’s digital market is the Internet of Things (IoT). By 2022, 85% of all IoT platforms are expected to use digital twins, according to a recent Research and Markets report. Pairing IoT with twins can help companies:
- Reduce investments in physical prototypes
- Shorten the go-to-market period
- Gain real-time and ongoing performance feedback
- Employ predictive or preventative maintenance
- Benefit from less costly, more efficient product lifecycles
- Design better future products or processes
While digital twin technology is an integral part of a digital factory, it can also benefit companies that are just starting to go digital. For example, a manufacturer can place IoT sensors on specific parts of a product or machine to create a comprehensive, computerized model of that machine. This digital twin can then pull ongoing sensor data to provide real-time information on performance, health, temperature, and so on. It can even predict component failures and product lifecycles.
Here are a few examples of digital twins and IoT at work:
Engineer and service company thyssenkrupp has been using the predictive maintenance capabilities of the Azure IoT Suite. It lets ThyssenKrupp’s service technicians identify problems with elevators to make early, timesaving interventions or repairs. In other words, the company can often service an elevator before it entirely breaks down.
According to Microsoft, thyssenkrupp is also adding Microsoft HoloLens to its toolkits. HoloLens incorporates digital twin technology in VR glasses, which lets engineers and manufacturers visualize relevant data in the context of their real world (Microsoft calls it “x-ray vision”). With HoloLens, thyssenkrupp technicians can then visualize potential causes of problems with an elevator and practice repairs before they go to a job site, or engage with remote experts who can virtually walk them through complex issues.
The power of the digital twin is that it can also allow users to monitor operations from afar. This is important for industries with remote facilities or infrastructure. For example, two wind energy companies, ZF Friedrichshafen and Schaeffler, recently teamed up to develop a digital solution for monitoring the gearbox of certain wind turbines during operation. They plan to use remotely monitored and continuously updated data to create a digital twin of the turbines’ gearboxes to better optimize energy production based on the current conditions.
GE Renewable Energy also offers a similar service to wind-power owners and operators. Their “Digital Wind Farm” lets wind-farm owners collect, visualize, and analyze turbine and site-level data. Through the ongoing collection of this data (such as weather, turbine component health, and even performance of similar models throughout the GE turbine fleet), a predictive model is built, and data is turned into actionable insights, which can lead to predictive maintenance and even improved products.
GE is also using digital twins to design more efficient hospitals or to redesign system dynamics in existing medical centers. According to GE, “system dynamics” includes staffing, floor plans, bed mix, model of care, etc. It gives the example of using GE analytics’ healthcare-specific simulation platform, which modeled just under 1,000 hospital beds at academic medical centers at a rate that was 75% faster than teams of PhDs using conventional methods.
Applying a system dynamics’ approach (say, to a facility floor plan) through digital twin technology can also help companies initially visualize and map out a digital factory, or even basic office space. Companies such as Vuzix are designing Smart Glasses, a wearable smart display with a see-through viewing experience, similar to Microsoft HoloLens. The glasses essentially overlay information on the real world and provide wearers with hands-free mobile computing and connectivity.
The digital world is moving quickly. Digital twins are expected to have an economic potential of more than $92 billion in the manufacturing industry by 2025, according to technology company BITKOM. IoT-connected digital twins are bound to transform manufacturing, offering new ways to reduce costs, monitor assets, optimize maintenance, and connect equipment regardless of location.