How Digital Twins are Transforming Manufacturing
Digital twins and other data-driven smart technologies are boosting efficiency and cutting costs
If a doctor had access to your digital clone, with real-time data about your diet, lifestyle and current environment, she could send you a prescription to treat an illness you didn’t know you had, perhaps before you even felt unwell. Medicine may not have arrived at that point yet, but so-called “digital twins” are very much a reality in the world of smart manufacturing.
Industrial sectors are benefiting from the process of digital transformation. Factories are making products more quickly and more efficiently, and with fewer resources because the combination of “virtual” and “real” is providing a full view of the value chain. Technologies like digital twins are gaining traction thanks to the prevalence of inexpensive sensors, networks for the reliable transmission of data, and intelligent analytics systems for processing and making decisions. International standards facilitate much of this. They not only diffuse proven best practices but also remove barriers to finding and acquiring reliable components from other countries at competitive prices.
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That’s why a growing number of companies are now able to use digital twins to boost quality and safety while cutting costs. According to a report by Gartner, nearly half of the organizations that are implementing the Internet of Things are either already using, or plan to start using digital twins soon. A good example of the former is the Siemens factory in Amberg, Germany, which has a digital twin that is identical in every respect. They use it to plan the production process and programme machines, for designing products and testing them, and to facilitate both preventive and predictive maintenance.
Preventive maintenance is the practice of regularly servicing machinery to make it perform better over its useful lifecycle and to avoid potentially catastrophic failures. Although regular maintenance reduces risk and may even extend the useful life of a machine, things can still go wrong. It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Murphy’s law that machinery is particularly vulnerable in the periods between maintenance sessions.
It is a truism that well looked-after machines occasionally break down, in the same way, that people who exercise regularly and take vitamin supplements sometimes fall ill. The solution, for machines at least, is constant, round-the-clock monitoring called predictive maintenance. Smart sensors make it possible to transmit data and intelligent analytics in real-time for informed decision-making.
The ability to predict when maintenance is needed minimizes disruption to the manufacturing process, as well as enabling engineers to understand how their machines influence a product’s tolerances, stresses and design. Digital twins enable manufacturers to study in real-time all the elements and dynamics of how a product is made, operates and works throughout its lifecycle.
Back at the Siemens plant in Amberg, only once there is an efficient working model and all the bugs have been ironed out, does the physical factory begin production. The technology has allowed Siemens to scale production to 15 million units a year, a 13-fold increase since 1989, without hiring more people, or moving into larger premises. According to Siemens, the defect rate at the plant is close to zero. This is all the more remarkable given that the plant manufactures more than a thousand different products on the same production lines.
Digital twins are not restricted to the world of smart manufacturing. A leading oil expert claims that creating a digital twin of an asset can generate significant cost savings and increase production. Elsewhere, a growing number of major infrastructure assets have digital twins. In Australia, for example, more than two thousand sensors monitor the physical integrity of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in order to align it with a digital twin.
The bridge is just over a kilometre long, but the biggest object with a digital twin can probably be found at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland. The 27km loop of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is not only the world’s largest particle accelerator but may also be the largest machine ever built. Every component in the LHC is logged in an enterprise asset management (EAM) system as a digital twin.