In the last article, we defined digital twinning and touched on some of the ways digital twins are set to disrupt the status quo (in a good way!) in industrial design and operations. To understand exactly how this will occur, we need to look to another one of our favorite technologies: the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
The idea of the digital twin is now 15 years old. But, while there were some early users, digital twinning only recently started to be talked about in a broader context.
Because it was never feasible on a large scale before. That is, until the advent of the Internet of Things.
In the previous article, we quoted NASA’s John Vickers on the agency’s use of digital twins. Here’s an excerpt: “We then want that physical build to tie back to its digital twin through sensors so that the digital twin contains all the information that we could have by inspecting the physical build.”
The critical bit here is that a digital twin isn’t just a static representation of something. There needs to be a link between the physical and the digital so that the digital twin “contains all the information” in real time (or near real time). That link is provided by sensors on the physical object that collect data and report it back to the digital twin. The digital twin then changes to provide an up-to-date picture of the physical object.
NASA and other well-funded organizations notwithstanding, until recently most companies didn’t have access to technology that would allow them to place sensors on equipment, send the data back to a centralized database, and use analytics to make sense of the data. Now, the Industrial Internet of Things provides exactly those capabilities, at a price that’s becoming affordable for companies of all sizes.
As Daniel Newman of Futurum Research wrote for Forbes:
In many ways, the IoT is the missing link that makes accurate digital twins a reality. Gartner predicts billions of things will have digital twins in the next three to five years, largely because of the number of mechanisms that will be able to communicate data and knowledge via the IoT infrastructure. Now that billions of objects can be linked together — connecting data and knowledge in real time — models can be created that are true to life. In other words, they can now be trusted to truly model the physical reality they are trying to replicate.
How can industry use the digital twins and the IIoT to improve operations?
We’ll dig into this topic in greater depth in future articles, but as a teaser, here are some ways companies can capitalize on the unprecedented amount of information and insight that can be gained from adopting these new technologies:
- Lifecycle management. By using digital twins, you can trace and manage a project throughout its entire lifecycle. This allows you to optimize operations along the way and also learn lessons to improve your projects in the future.
- Alerts and early detection. Having internet-connected equipment allows you to detect any abnormalities in that equipment before they become costly problems. Having a digital twin of an entire facility allows you to do this on a much bigger scale.
- Maintenance management. Crafting better (i.e., predictive) maintenance schedules is already one of the main ways manufacturing is using the IIoT. Digital twinning takes this ability up a notch, not just providing real-time insight into device or equipment performance, but also allowing you to visualize the impact of different courses of action to minimize any losses due to downtime.
- Aggregating data. A single digital twin represents the information contained in a single physical object. But digital twins don’t have to stand alone. As GE notes in this article, there is value in aggregation: “If your organization is monitoring multiple systems of the same type of assets, for instance a fleet of jet engines (each of which has an individual digital twin), you can start to learn from all of them as a cohort, find similar patterns or trends, and that analysis can lead to refining models for higher fidelity in the future.”
These are just a few of the ways digital twinning and the IIoT are coming together to transform industry. The next article will explore some specific ways digital twinning makes plants more productive and efficient.