How Digital Twinning Makes Plants More Productive and Efficient

Productivity dialThis month, we’re focusing on how digital twins are changing manufacturing and other industrial sectors. We’ve examined what a digital twin is and how the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) makes digital twinning more accessible to more companies.

We’ve touched a little on the benefits of using digital twins throughout a product lifecycle. Let’s look more closely at how digital twins can make today’s plants more productive and efficient.

Optimizing products and processes before you build them

A digital twin provides a virtual environment where you can design, build, and test products and processes before you or your clients invest a single penny in production.

This helps solve multiple problems. First, it allows you the freedom to try out different configurations and contexts without risk. For example, you might try out different factory floor layouts to minimize the distance products need to travel. After all, you never know — the best solution might be something you try just on a whim. With traditional prototypes, testing out multiple scenarios can be cost-prohibitive. With a digital twin, it’s much easier and much less expensive.

Digital twinning also decreases costs associated with change requests. The later in a project cycle changes are made, the costlier they are. A digital twin gives you and your clients the opportunity to assess multiple options and make changes before they cause a product to go in the red.

Finally, it will make your engineers happier. An Aberdeen group study found that the five biggest challenges facing design engineers are:

  • frequent design changes,
  • changing design requirements,
  • projects are understaffed,
  • increased product complexity, and
  • problems/errors are found too late.

Digital twinning can help you address all of them.

Reducing unplanned downtime through predictive maintenance

Unplanned downtime is estimated to cost process industries about 5% of production per year. That’s a huge loss. And it’s largely preventable by taking a strategic approach to maintenance.

A digital twin provides the plant-wide data you need to make data-driven decisions about maintenance activities. You can assess the performance of your equipment, determine what equipment is at the most risk, and weigh factors including the costs of repairing or replacing equipment against the costs of downtime. You can also find and fix small things before they become big problems.

Achieving safety and compliance

Digitizing your process designs and plant layouts means you can try out various “what if” scenarios. This is useful for optimizing your processes. It’s also beneficial for ensuring worker safety and achieving compliance with industry standards because it allows you to validate your processes virtually.

Improving energy efficiency

Energy is expensive, and even small improvements in energy efficiency can have a large impact on a plant’s bottom line. Needless to say, it’s also good for the environment.

GE estimates that optimizing operations using a digital twin can increase the efficiency of a power plant by 1.5%. This, in turn, can lead to significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

Enabling better predictability

Every company would love to see into the future. Imagine if you could predict exactly when equipment would start to see degraded performance, what the effect of increased ambient temperature would be on your energy efficiency, or how much money you could save by scheduling your downtime in August rather than September.

With a digital twin, you can collect historical data that you can use to discern patterns and evaluate different scenarios. It’s not a crystal ball, but it’s close.

Providing risk-free hands-on training

We’re quickly moving into an era where low-skill jobs are being replaced by jobs requiring more technical skills, as well as advanced problem-solving and decision-making capabilities. A digital twin can help you train your workforce to become experts on the unique equipment and layouts in your plant. It also provides a realistic, but risk-free environment for hands-on training in handling unusual or emergency situations.

Aggregating data from across your entire plant

As you can extrapolate from the points above, the real power of the digital twin comes in its ability to aggregate data from across your entire plant, and beyond. This isn’t just about monitoring the performance of an internet-connected device. It’s about bringing the data from all of the devices together into a single view of all of your assets. This provides the necessary context for understanding what’s going on in your plant as a whole.

Facilitating collaboration across your organization

Finally, following on the previous idea, a digital twin doesn’t just bring your data together. It brings your people together as well.

As IBM Watson’s Lynne Slowey wrote on the IBM Internet of Things blog:

The real magic happens when people across the organization have the exact digital twin view they need of a product at every stage in its lifecycle. This has never been possible before because each stakeholder group has its own set of data and applications, and they don’t talk to each other. What’s possible now: with a single, powerful interface to the Digital Twin, multiple views can be created for different stakeholders, using the same underlying data streams but with visualizations and supplemental data sources tailored to the needs of each particular user.

If you’ve been part of an organization suffering from the silo effect, you already know what happens when teams don’t talk: time and money are wasted, poor decisions are made, revenue is lost, and stakeholders become frustrated. Digital twins have the potential to change all of that by providing a single source of truth for the data used by people across your organization.

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The are the main ways digital twins are set to benefit process and manufacturing plants…for now. In the next few years, as the technology becomes more widely used, we expect to see much more innovation. It’s an exciting time!

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