The past year has posed a significant challenge to the processes industries, with rapid shifts in supply and demand in some sectors resulting from new economic realities. While the industrial world has always been susceptible to market volatility, business resiliency in 2021 will be more important than ever.
Layered onto this, there is an urgent need by companies to pivot to meet the energy transition and circular economy. Digital twins are key to supporting that effort.
Digital twins are based on real-time data across multiple dimensions, providing models of assets, business processes, and asset health, which gives organizations the ability to be more agile in operations and make better decisions that support key business outcomes and goals.
Amid economic uncertainty and the pressure to remain profitable, industrial organizations have to ask the “what if” question more frequently when considering different process scenarios.
Digital twins provide the answer.
Enabling efficient scheduling and planning
Scheduling/planning is the starting point for successful operations. However, manual approaches, where operators leverage spreadsheets to map out production scheduling or run small numbers of options sequentially, is ineffective. It is impossible to manually uncover all of the different process scenarios and possibilities—the digital twin provides an edge to organizations as it can not only provide insight quickly into all process scenarios and optimize the order in which certain processes occur, it can also automate workflows across process and planning models, which help improve planning accuracy.
The addition of Industrial AI can further improve upon finding the best plan, by advising planners of outcomes of prior similar plans. Consider it working smart.
The more accuracy in scheduling and planning, the bigger the financial benefits will be and the wider the profit margin will grow. However, profitability aside, digital twins have the dual effect of improving sustainability efforts in the process industries, particularly in the in planning and scheduling stage, where the planning model can optimize for managing both carbon intensity and margin.
Accelerating the decision-making process
Digital twins can also help prioritize decision making across a number of business goals in the process industries. If a plant sees a sudden surge in demand for a certain product, production will require more efficiency and speed. Operators can leverage digital twins to rapidly simulate a wide range of alternative strategies to meet increased product demand, including advising which plants should make which products. From there, operators can pinpoint different adjustments to help make processes move faster. They can then apply those changes to their actual operations.
Digital twins can also monitor and forecast emissions and degradation in performance. A large Indian refiner, BPCL, recently won a prestigious innovation award for a plant-wide digital twin model of their CO2 and other emissions, helping them adjust, day by day, to the best operating strategies that would achieve carbon-reduction goals while meeting delivery commitments.
In short, human decision-making in the industrial setting can be informed by digital twins to reach better outcomes, faster.
Training plant operators in simulated environments
Training plant operators on classroom situations can leave them lacking real-world experience. When it comes to important manufacturing processes specific to a certain plant or product, digital twins can help train plant operators by presenting them with different scenarios so they can experience real-world plant situations (process start-ups, plant shutdowns, production slowdowns and other unexpected events) in a simulated environment. As these models are based on current data, this can help better prepare these operators for complex situations that may arise in the real world.
Digital-twin technology supports business resiliency in so many ways—there is no end in sight for the level of business value it provides. Efficiency is only part of the equation; organizations need to understand that and evaluate the different applications digital twins can have on their business. It could be a make-or-break decision in the coming year.
Ron Beck is director of marketing strategy at AspenTech