Digital twinning sounds like a term out of a science fiction movie—a phrase exchanged
across the deck of the Starship Enterprise. However, it is real. It is here to stay. And it can be confusing.
In simple terms, a digital twin refers to a digital representation of a real-world system. The concept can be applied to many different industries, but it may show the most promise in manufacturing, as real-time digital awareness informs the best physical response.
Traditional factories lack connectivity. Operators and engineers cannot see the minute-by-minute efficacy of equipment on the factory floor. Information about individual machine’s performance is siloed and that knowledge is owned only by the individual operator overseeing that specific machine. The practice of integrating sensors into a factory’s equipment and linking the data streams together is the foundation of creating a digital twin.
The goal of forming this digital twin is to use it to run simulations and predict how the performance of a factory will react to different variables. Running these test scenarios in a digital space enables an enterprise to make data-informed decisions—rather than hunches—to improve overall efficiency. A digital-twin infrastructure also impacts the product life cycle management (PLM) for customers.
Having the ability to virtually run a customer’s design through the production process can create valuable insights. A manufacturer can compare how quickly the design can be produced using various manufacturing processes. It can show how variations in design—such as using metal 3D printing versus CNC machining—can impact the speed and cost of production. Designs can also be optimized past the initial prototyping stage. The digital twin can be used to take a holistic look at how a customer’s design will perform or what changes will need to be made when transitioning from the prototyping stage to larger product-introduction runs and beyond. For example, plastic 3D printing may have been an effective process for prototyping, but as the production cycle matures and the customer needs larger production runs, plastic injection molding may streamline production.
Transparency for all stakeholders
Having transparency within the supply chain is not a new concept. Even for the general consumer, when you’re ordering an item online you can see if it’s in stock, when the shipping label is printed, when it is dropped in the mail, and the journey it takes before it arrives on your doorstep. Digital twins take this a step further. Customers can tap into their manufacturer’s system at any time and see where their project is within its product lifecycle. On the other end of the spectrum, suppliers will also have access, so automatic replenishment can be driven by the system. This access improves overall organizational agility in the face of organizational digitization.
The intersection of digital twinning and blockchain technology also enables new transparency into the traceability of the origin of materials. It is an impenetrable distributed ledger. This can be a game-changer for validating the efficacy of materials entering the manufacturing supply chain. With blockchain technology, information can be traced back to any point in its history so there is a clear understanding of who the ‘owner’ was. This means a metal could be traced from the moment the bauxite is mined to when it arrives at a factory—and all the processing steps in between. Blockchain can eliminate the selling of fraudulent materials and provide a means for ensuring ethical sourcing. When combined with digital twinning, it would be possible to add to the digital ledger and validate all the steps that the material undergoes to become an end-product, so the customer can see the full life of a part.
This level of transparency also creates operational efficiency within the organization. Based on the data from a digital twin alone, the factory manager can better manage people on the shop floor. For example, the manager can determine that as a machine runs a part, the technician that set up the job can move onto another task. By adding the blockchain layer, now the manager can truly account for every unit of material that is entering and leaving the shop floor.
Shortening the product lifecycle
Digital twinning ultimately leads to increased efficiency, getting products to market faster.
A digital twin can also be used for predictive maintenance—using sensors within equipment to monitor each machine’s health to proactively reduce downtime. The ability to receive real-time data also equips a factory to immediately identify flaws within parts and products as they are produced, so that a corrective action can be initiated at any step within the production process. In addition, having tangible data on when, what and how much a machine is producing enables the manufacturer to make strategic decisions on how to optimize utilization of all assets.
While digital twinning is often looked at through the lens of how it benefits the manufacturer, gains extend far beyond—to the customer, to the product engineer and supplier. Eventually, this practice will become a standard within factories across the globe. For now, those that have this infrastructure set up—or are actively pursuing it—have an edge.
David Hunter is CEO of Star Rapid.