Digital Twin Technology: Where Are We Now?
For example, an automotive manufacturer could create a digital twin of an automobile prototype to test the design of the airbags or a steering system through simulations. The digital twin could enable them to virtually assess the impact of changes to the product or prototype, Rehak said.
Twins can also model an entire factory floor, with separate twins assigned to distinct operations such as mechanical systems, heating and cooling, and the movement of people. Microsoft announced late last year its Azure Digital Twins, potentially enabling customers to do just that.
Additionally, safety and the performance of the product over a long life cycle are critical elements. “There is also a lot of discussion about using digital twins for ongoing performance monitoring once a product has been sold and is out in the field or with a customer,” Rehak said.
Whether that type of tracking and monitoring is a “full” digital twin is debatable, she added. In Rehak’s parlance, it could be called an “information twin” with just connected product information. Simpler manufacturing environments might also use sensors on equipment and monitoring dashboards as more appropriate solutions than digital twins to drive efficiency.
A true digital twin isn’t always attainable because “the dots still haven’t been joined up” to bring that broader, interconnected view to life, Hughes said. Survey data he cited shows that companies’ efforts over the next two to five years are still focused on the first phase of digital transformation: retrieving data from machines and pulling it somewhere to be interpreted and put to use.
“They’re putting the plumbing in first, for the data, so it can be structured in a sensible way,” he said. “There isn’t a lot of infrastructure and middleware to help you do that, but there is the drive and the need to do it, a natural evolution.”
From that point, simulations can be run when rigorous environmental models can present “what-if” and “what-now” interpretations.
Last month, for example, Hughes reviewed a digital twin of an oil rig. “With the live digital model, engineers can rehearse for repairs, which valve needs to be turned off, if they need a ladder to reach something,” he said. “Previously they’d be working with plans and spreadsheets of readings, using a blueprint of pipes, take readings of dials. But this is taking live data and placing it into a 3D model. It’s a proper fusion between a CAD representation and what is going on in the real world.”
Similarly, Red Bull Racing trains its drivers in simulators, giant video games, Hughes said. Because not a lot of testing is allowed in Formula One, the simulator is rigged to a physical car or part of a car that isn’t actually being driven on a track.
It’s a twist on the twin model, Hughes said. “They’re using a simulator to exercise a physical device, seeing if a heavy foot on the accelerator will break the engine quicker. Trying to get the best yield from a manual process, and then instructing machinery to upgrade the brakes, adjust temperature or pressure.”