A trend in evidence at the SPS Drives show in Nuremberg in late 2017 was the emphasis being placed on the use of the digital twin in manufacture and process design.
Digital twins are living models of a process that generate real-time operational and environmental data. They predict failures, while also reducing maintenance costs and unplanned outages. There is a huge upside in terms of productivity savings and shortened development cycles.
Put most simply, a digital twin is a virtual model of something – it could be a product, process or service – or a combination of these things. Many market sectors, including automotive, life sciences and large continuous processes predict a great future for digital twins.
The Digital Twin concept gained ground in the product development world as a means of creating a virtual representation of physical assets, including validation and testing. The digital twin for improving field performance and customer satisfaction of products such as jet engines and CAT scanners is a newer approach. In discrete manufacturing, the Digital Twin might be simply of the product itself, how it is made and how it interacts with its environment.
But this process, which promises to reduce reliance on costly prototypes while accelerating time to market, is now starting to take root in the plant floor environment to optimise factory floor layout and validate control systems and automation processes. Digital twins help familiarise engineers with critical machinery, components and actions virtually, long before they step out into the field.
Some companies with deep roots in 3D CAD modelling see the digital twin as a way to define and optimize factory floor layout and production processes in a virtual world prior to putting physical assets in place and flipping the switch on production. On the other hand, automation companies consider the digital twin as a tool for validating and optimizing control systems and automation processes. Yet other companies interpret the digital twin as virtualisation, the IT technology that abstracts operating systems, applications, networks and storage from the underlying hardware or software so the process is no longer dependent on a specific physical platform, allowing for greater flexibility and scale.
A promising area is to set the stage for predictive maintenance. The idea is to make all the data usable for visibility and analytics. In this way, it can connect production with materials management, quality processes and maintenance processes. Thus far, while most companies in automation are using the digital twin for operator training and process optimisation, there is little utilisation in predictive and preventative maintenance, where the ability to predict or anticipate potential issues or planning maintenance would reduce production disruption. A manufacturer could collect data from products in or after use to analyse performance expectations against actual. Then, the twin could self-optimise to reflect upgrades, maintenance and environmental changes. The product could even contain its own digital twin so the customer could diagnose problems.
Complex infrastructures such as airports can even be modelled to include all the systems needed to bring passengers to and from planes safely, along with their luggage, duty-free purchases, and other parameters. A digital twin of an airport can simulate interactions between people, equipment, and allows airport staff to simulate breakdowns.
Though the digital twin concept is certainly making headway, it is still in its early days. The digital twin market is projected to show major growth, with North America estimated to account for the largest share of the market, while the Asia-Pacific market is projected to grow at the fastest rate. Major growth is attributed to the increasing adoption of Industry 4.0/Internet of Things methods and cloud-based platforms. The US and Canada feature a well-established infrastructure which allows higher penetration of devices and better connectivity. Asia Pacific is predominantly using Industry 4.0 methods for designing and manufacturing in countries such as Japan, China, South Korea and India.
Expect to see an acceleration of exciting developments in digital twins in automation and product development.