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Greetings, manufacturing execs, Directors of Technical Training, and Troubleshooters everywhere! Thanks for joining us again on TST.

Today we’re talking about digital twin factories, an Industry 4.0 trend that uses 3D simulation and IoT data to create a virtual replica of a functioning industrial facility to provide a host of benefits. (But first, if you haven’t had a chance yet, be sure to check out last week’s post on Industry 4.0 and 3D simulation—an overview of how 3D simulation is being used in multiple new ways to take Industry 4.0 to the next level.)

Digital Twins

The term “digital twin” refers to a dynamic software model of a physical thing or system—in other words, a virtual (or digital) representation that exactly matches the physical attributes of a real product or component, factory or plant. Digital twins are constructed from physics data on how the parts of the object operate and respond to the environment, data from sensors in the real object, input from cameras, and data collected from other systems. They can then be used to replicate the way the real object will react to changes, without those changes having to be made in the physical world.

It’s not a totally new idea—NASA has used complex simulations for designing and  controlling aerospace vehicles, and in fact coined the term “digital twin”—but its value is now being widely recognized by the industrial sector. Digital twin technology has been on Gartners’ Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for three years running, in 2017, 2018 and 2019. It’s estimated that there will be 21 billion connected sensors and endpoints by 2020, meaning that there will be virtual doppelgangers for billions of entities not so far from now.

Digital Twin Factories

It’s obviously a huge advantage in product development, because you can make tweaks and improvements to the product and see the results instantly, without waiting for a costly physical prototype that might end up in the trash heap. As the technology advances, however, digital twinning is no longer just being used in the design and development of products, but also in the manufacturing systems themselves—in the form of complete digital twin factories that virtually simulate real-world facilities in every respect.

IoT technology advances are enabling real-time collection of more and more data from all elements of production facilities, enough to go beyond mere object twinning, and even production-line twinning, to total facility replication. Data from real-time control systems and asset management systems, historical data, records of customer or employee interactions and more can all be fed into a virtual model to produce a highly accurate replica. Using this virtual factory, manufacturers can simulate the effects of upgrades, test new workflows, or experiment with what-if scenarios before investing the money and time and potentially having to shut down production in the process.

Technological Overkill?

Although it seems inevitable that digital twin factories will soon be an integral part of manufacturing, and as exciting as this technology is, it does come with a price tag. Manufacturers need to do a careful cost-benefit analysis before adopting it, and ensure they understand the key benefits. It may not be the solution for every manufacturing challenge, and in fact might be technological overkill in some cases where a simpler solution would work just as well.

Maintenance and Repair

One of the ways digital twinning of production facilities is expected to help manufacturers is in the area of maintenance and repair and optimized asset performance. Some estimates place the potential savings in the billions of dollars. (Chevron Corp. alone expects to save millions by twinning its oil fields and refineries, a process it intends to complete by 2024.) Twinning allows hybrid visualization, a combination of visual information and both live and historical data. This kind of visualization lets manufacturers look into the hidden place deep within production machinery (including even very difficult-to-access equipment, such as subsurface oil reservoirs or space vehicles) to check on wear and tear, temperature abnormalities, structural integrity, and other conditions that lead to equipment failure and inefficiencies. That way, they can be dealt with in the real-world before they become a problem (predictive maintenance), providing huge savings in avoided downtime.

Of course, even in a twinned facility or plant, equipment failure will inevitably still happen, so manufacturers can’t kiss their maintenance personnel goodbye just yet. In fact, all of those billions of embedded sensors are themselves each prone to failure, and have to be repaired to keep the whole system up and running. Manufacturers are still going to have to equip their maintenance personnel to troubleshoot these kinds of electrical faults. (For more information on 3D simulation training for electrical troubleshooting, visit www.simutechmultimedia.com.)

And that’s it for today, Troubleshooters! Join us again next Thursday as we look at ways simulation training can help manufacturers remain competitive in the era of Industry 4.0. 

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