Digital twins for engineering technology

IDC FutureScape: Worldwide IoT Predictions has stated that “By 2020, 30% of G2000 companies will be using data from digital twins of IoT connected products and assets to improve product innovation success rates and organisational productivity, achieving gains of up to 25%.” But what exactly is a digital twin and what could it do for your manufacturing operation?

A digital twin could be defined as, “A virtual, computer-based copy of something real, modelled to realistically represent and control physical assets through their lifecycle and be easily accessible at any time.” The concept was originally thought of to help improve product lifecycle management. Today, however, there are three main categories in which a digital twin can be utilised: Product design, Process planning and validation, and Execution.

  • The first of these, product design, is more associated with product lifecycle management and is probably the area of application for the digital twin that is most familiar in manufacturing industries. Here, the digital twin helps monitor and control product areas such as design, specification and variations.
  • The second, process planning and validation, helps with planning and testing manufacturing models, including planning processes and resources.
  • The third, and arguably most underutilized and interesting area, is where a digital twin can help is in manufacturing execution. Its use here is the least explored of the three categories and it offers huge potential in helping drive production efficiency, especially in the manufacture of sophisticated technological products.

Going back to our definition of a digital twin, it states that modelling, representation and control of physical assets are all attributed to this intelligent ‘copy’ of the real world. At its most basic level, one could interpret this as a representation of a factory for monitoring purposes, much like a Google Maps for the shop floor! But a digital twin is much more than this, especially in a manufacturing landscape that is embracing increasingly automated processes using technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data and cloud computing.

Fundamentally, however, for a digital twin to be of use, it must provide a realistic view of the physical world. CAD files can be imported into digital twins and ‘drag and drop’ technology used for rapid creation of views onto the shop floor. 3D modelling can also be utilised to provide even deeper visual detail and operator interaction with the twin.

Virtual assets within the twin need to be associated with real assets on the shop floor along with real time data about processes, parameters, position of resources, etc. so the operator can control equipment and processes remotely. Building these views with the ability to zoom in or zoom out to greater or lesser levels of detail, the digital twin can be used not only to represent a piece of equipment but an entire process line, complete shop floor, or even multiple factories located throughout the world, connected via a single, powerful operator interface. ‘Zooming out’ to such a level, provides management with a quick visual overview of the status of operations and can help identify problems or bottlenecks before they occur.

The digital twin and MES

So, at an execution level, a digital twin can be utilized to provide a dashboard of operations, but how does this fit with other factory systems? The answer lies within the manufacturing execution system (MES). A future-ready MES, designed for operation with modern IoT interfaces as well as connection to legacy equipment, adds context and coordination to the huge volumes of data entering the digital twin from the shop floor. Working as a translation layer, it turns data into valuable information upon which strategic decisions can be made. It also maps all physical or business processes to provide overall coordination and to ensure critical business systems, such as quality control or statistical process control, are integrated and cannot be bypassed.

See everything…easily!

To make it exceptionally easy to create realistic, 2D or 3D visualisation in our MES, we have added several features, which mean first prototypes of the digital twin can be available in as little as a single day!

  • Import CAD files and elements and then drag them to the correct location.
  • If factory layout changes, simply drag equipment to its new location.
  • If location services are enabled, equipment and asset positions can be updated automatically.
  • Accepts real-time positioning coordinates for movable assets such as products, containers and even Human Resources.
  • Build screens in layers that can be switched off or on for added clarity: equipment, transportation system, product flow, human resources…
  • Easy colour-coded status of assets.
  • Master Data Loader enables import of all asset in formation (such as equipment names, product types, process steps, parameters) from a spreadsheet and automatically link with drawings in the digital twin.
  • Zoom in or out for more or less detail.

I can see clearly now…

Once factory visualisation is complete, it is important that operators can use the digital twin for straight forward control of plant floor operations. To help with this, we have given users the ability to quickly configure screens to suit operator needs. Screens can include elements such as a 3D map, historical information, data on product or equipment key performance indicators, maintenance schedules, etc. Of course, these screens need to be readily available on fixed workstations and mobile devices to add to the efficiency of the operation. Once complete, the system offers complete visibility of the shop floor, making it easy to spot problems and intervene where necessary.

Optimise, optimise, optimise

Once visualisation and control are complete, the shop floor can be optimised using scheduling modules, predictive analysis, machine learning and big data analytics. As the number of IoT devices used increases, data is fed much more quickly into the digital twin, helping it to learn more quickly and translate data into useful information. The MES must handle both standard equipment interfaces and new IoT devices – to help with this we have introduced a new “Connect IoT” module.

The power of the digital twin does not stop there. Having all the data in a virtual space leads to virtual reality scenarios, which are interesting in areas such as training. Offering even richer potential, however, are augmented reality scenarios where digital information is added to the visualisation, so operators can see instructions, warnings or any other information on their screen as they approach the equipment. This could mean a full batch record, maintenance information, KPIs or which products are in process – the possibilities for this are endless and many are well within reach today.

What should you do now?

If you need help planning a transition to Industry 4.0 manufacturing models or want to find out more about how the digital twin at an execution level can help increase manufacturing efficiency, talk to us. The MES designed by Critical Manufacturing Deutschland GmbH is specifically designed to embrace Industry 4.0 and all the benefits it offers. It is completely modular and flexible, so it can match your business needs today and tomorrow without the huge overheads historically associated with implementing such a powerful manufacturing system.

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