Why could ignoring Digital Twins mean double trouble?

Paul Ceely, Director of Technology Strategy at Digital Catapult, looks at Digital Twins, including how we’ll see their value increase in the not too distant future and how they may be the only way to address the systemic sustainability and resilience questions facing the supply chain.

Digital Twins. I bet you’re thinking, I’ve heard of them – but I probably couldn’t explain them to someone in detail. Actually, Google trends indicate that over the past five years, the number of searches for the topic has increased by 400 per cent.

Unhelpfully, the concept of a ‘digital twin’ has long been the subject of hype and a string of confusing definitions, causing a lot of uncertainty and reticence amongst businesses. In their most simple form, digital twins are systems that gather or present data from the physical, ‘real’ world. This data is then used to build a model in the digital world (‘the twin’) which carries out analyses and enables smarter decision making in the physical world.

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Throughout the course of history, we’ve seen the ‘twin’ concept – but with less of a digital element – used in many major industries. For example, in the second world war, model ships were used in a control room to map the locations of ships on the Normandy coastline.

Live data was radioed from the front line to update the location of these models and allow for better, more strategic decision making. Digital twins take this concept in the present day – and involve coupling a physical asset or process to a virtual or digital representation – with an output enabling a function or action.

Widespread confusion

Digital Twins have the potential to be powerful, but with so many definitions, options and applications, they are yet to fully take flight in industry. At Digital Catapult, we increasingly see that many companies either do not know what digital twins are, or are left scratching their heads when it comes to applications or benefits to their business.

Multiple digital technologies are required to get the most out of digital twins – such as artificial intelligence, high-performance connectivity, visualisation techniques, and IoT with powerful compute and simulation requirements – which are potentially complex and expensive today. This leads to another barrier to their adoption: namely businesses being assured that they will get a good return on investment, by proving their worth as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

Why should you care?

Fully predictive digital twins have the capability to dynamically automate decision making both in operation and planning and forecasting; we’re a little way off this being mainstream, but this use case is starting to emerge and could be completely transformative when it comes to cutting costs, waste and improving assets’ lifecycles.

They are particularly helpful for complex systems which would otherwise be hard to address by a person in real-time. As with all digital innovation, digital twins should be fully embedded in strategic digital transformation programmes or challenges that need solving from the outset. Tacking them on as an afterthought at the end of a project would be like starting from scratch. If this happens, companies can enter a ‘pilot purgatory’, where new concepts get stuck between seed and shelf.

Experimentation equals innovation

Alongside sectors like engineering and architecture, manufacturing invests one the highest levels of R&D spend in the UK, but investment tends to be focused on product innovation rather than digital technology applications. That said, manufacturing is an area where advanced digital technologies such as digital twins can have the most direct impact, for example optimising the production process or design, or predictive maintenance for equipment or in-life products.  For this reason, we are starting to see some leading digital twin implementations in the manufacturing area.

Research centres like the recently launched University of Exeter’s DIGIT Lab are working with Digital Catapult to pinpoint these challenges, and help large businesses use digital technology to transform their business strategies, as we start to look beyond challenges like coronavirus and plan for growth.

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Early adopters are the disruptors

Thankfully, we are seeing many customers turn up the heat when it comes to experimenting with advanced technologies. Over the last few years, many have seen pretty much all areas of their lives go ‘digital’, which means the bar is naturally high.

There’s a big expectation from organisations that wherever technology could be developed or applied for gains, it should be – though I’d caution that isn’t always necessarily true. However, sustainability and resilience are two priority challenges that are emerging.

Quite rightly, net zero and slashing waste have risen dramatically up the agenda, while the political and economic tremors of the past few years have really opened companies’ eyes to future-proofing their organisations and preparing for different eventualities.

These are systemic problems, for example, optimising for waste in one part of the chain often drives up waste in another part – unless it is viewed as a whole. The early adopters will become the disruptors, setting the agenda for digital twins with the potential to leave their competitors lagging behind.

Resilient and sustainable

Digital twins promise to deliver in both these areas. In industries like construction, digital twins and Building Information modelling have huge potential to make not only the design and construction process associated with our buildings greener, but also the operation and long-term asset management. An example is Proctor & Gamble Amiens, a manufacturing plant that embraced Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies to accommodate a consistent volume increase of 30 per cent over three years through digital twin technology.

This led to 6 per cent lower inventory levels, 10 per cent improvement in overall equipment effectiveness and a 40 per cent reduction in scrap waste. Meanwhile, connected digital twins can provide industry with the ability to improve cross-supply chain visibility, reveal critical new insights and help us carry out predictive scenario analysis. By simulating process operations, and with flexibility on parameters, digital twins can allow us to better optimise our operations in a challenging, fast-changing world. Eventually, this could be revolutionary not just for companies on an individual basis, but right across supply chains, which have too long been subject to poor information flow. All companies must step up and play their part when it comes to improving data sharing and scenario-planning; the current rethink involves bringing the majority of the supply chain together to actually make it work – forcing digital supply chains from the top down is simply not feasible.

Supercharged by 5G

Robust, reliable and high-performance digital infrastructure is the key to live, digital coupling – enabling digital twins to take flight – and the acquisition of high-quality, secure data is enabled by a wide range of connectivity technologies.

In manufacturing, these technologies are predominantly wired, meaning organisations have faced a number of barriers to advancing digital twin technologies. Until recently, wireless future network technologies have lacked the security, reliability and performance to compete. Now, we have Industrial 5G, WiFi 6 and LPWAN to name but a few – all of which, excitingly, are reaching a state of maturity to make live digital coupling cheap, secure, flexible and interoperable.

Get ahead of the game

The next year or so promises to bring about a step-change in digital twin development. As more facilities pop up that support their adoption with processes, tools, and assets, through various use cases, I expect that we’ll see their value being demonstrated even more, helping accelerate their adoption across industries – with manufacturing set to benefit immeasurably. This trend promises to be more than a buzzword.

Digital twins are one of the best ways to address complex systems, and connected digital twins may be the only way to address systemic questions around sustainability and resilience across the supply chain. While digital twin applications and proven benefits are still developing, it’s better to strike while the iron’s hot. Read up, research what applications are emerging in your industry and have a conversation with an expert about digital twins today to see what they could do for your business.


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