How many uses are there for the digital twin?

July 9, 2020

The answer: A lot!

By John Burton, CEO of UrsaLeo

Digital twins—photorealistic 3D models of facilities and equipment—continue to develop use cases in smart manufacturing. Let’s explore how digital twins are created and some of the ways companies are using them.

Creating a digital twin has dropped in price in recent years due to the extensive use of 3D in computer games and film/TV. A twin can be created in an industrial environment in a number of different ways. Commonly a CAD file is available for a piece of equipment, which can be used as a starting point to create a twin. (CAD drawings themselves are too complex and too engineering-focused to be used as a twin.)

If CAD is not available, results can be obtained using a technique called photogrammetry, in which photographs are taken from every angle and an algorithm is used to convert the photos into a 3D model. To create a model of a larger space, a combination of photogrammetry and RADAR/LIDAR scanning can be employed.

In all cases, scans and CAD files need a human artist to add texture and color to produce the final result.

Once a model is created, here are some of the ways they can be used in smart manufacturing.

As a sales and marketing tool. Digital twins can be shipped to customers with a mere mouse click. Models can be animated and the equipment can be ‘used’ by prospective customers in a simulation environment. Some equipment is too big and bulky to be easily transportable to trade shows and other events; a twin can be transported on a flash drive. Twins can be viewed in VR for a fully immersive experience.

As a prototype-feedback tool. When a product is initially developed customers almost always want changes. Shipping an early version as a digital twin can gather that invaluable feedback early and be used to iterate the design before a physical prototype is ever made.

As a training tool. Real machinery might be expensive or dangerous to use for training. Using VR to train staff on a digital twin is already a well-established technique in industrial settings.

As a monitoring tool. Combining digital twins with live sensor data allows them to be used to monitor equipment remotely as an improvement on the classic IoT dashboard. Thousands of data points can be displayed on a single screen and more (or less) detail revealed using zoom in/out. More data can be included from asset and maintenance records. Alerts can automatically guide the user to the physical location of the problem instantly as opposed to looking up a sensor location on the factory blueprints, a process that can take tens of minutes.

As a way to track preventative maintenance. Many pieces of equipment need to be replaced after a set amount of hours. Tracking how long a piece of equipment has been used is traditionally not an exact process. A digital twin combined with sensor data can track usage to the second and also visually display when a piece of equipment is nearing replacement date.

As a remote-control tool. Connecting the twin to live equipment allows remote operation. The operator is working on something that looks exactly the same as the real equipment, removing the need for training. The equipment can even be viewed and operated in VR, using haptic gloves for an even more lifelike experience.

As a way to track moving assets. Digital twins of facilities can display assets moving around inside them, such as forklift trucks.

As a reporting tool. When issues do happen, it is often necessary to produce an incident report for internal, insurance and legal reasons. Using a digital twin, such reports can be a 'virtual video' using a rewind, record and replay feature. This is much faster than traditional reporting and produces a much more informative result.

As a simulation tool. Twins can be stimulated with 'scenario' data to run different future events and used to simulate operation of equipment and facilities.