Digital twinning: The future of manufacturing?

Today, the most innovative manufacturing businesses
are often the ones taking advantage of the new wave of industry-transforming
technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, robotics, and
artificial intelligence (AI). Industry 4.0 is the next phase of the
digitisation of the manufacturing sector, and a term called ‘digital twinning’
is gaining in popularity.

The concept of digital twinning has gained momentum in recent years as
more manufacturers invest in smart machines that are transforming the
industrial landscape. Defined as the mapping of a physical asset to a digital
platform, digital twinning is enabling manufacturers to gather data from
sensors on their machines to find out how they are performing in real time.

Earlier in the year, Gartner (an American research and advisory firm),
named digital twinning as number five in its top ten strategic technology
trends for 2017. It predicts that within three to five years, billions of
things will be represented by digital twins, and a recent Research and Markets
report suggests that up to 85% cent of all IoT platforms will contain some form
of digital twinning capability by 2022. Furthermore, this survey found that 75%
of executives across a broad spectrum of industry verticals plan to incorporate
them within their operations by 2020.

So why should manufacturers be taking digital twinning seriously? It is
because when we start connecting IoT endpoints, devices and physical assets to
data sensing and gathering systems, the data extracted can be turned into
valuable insights and ultimately optimise and automate processes. Consequently,
the potential for digital twinning to positively impact business outcomes are
almost endless.

Bridging the physical-digital

Digital twins are possible for all kinds of physical products – from microchips
to luxury cars. In fact, one industry that has trail-blazed the use of the
technology is Formula 1. Here, crucial, race-winning insights can be gained
from a digital twin running exactly the same race as the physical car, taking
into account factors such as road conditions, weather, and temperature.

For manufacturers, digital twins are used to boost efficiency and productivity
by enabling companies to monitor the construction of plants, manage assets, and
test its final products.

Take predictive maintenance, for example. This is where sensors
continuously collect machine condition data which can be used to calculate
component wear rates, production loads and lifespans. With digital twinning,
the machine operator is able to determine the optimal time for maintenance,
avoiding the cost both of major repairs and premature or unnecessary

The potential savings from digital twins are enormous, especially when
it comes to prototyping. With conventional product development, physical
prototypes tend not to be built until very late in the process. Having twinned
a device, a digital prototype can be used to run simulations in virtual reality
that can be modified at any time at minimal cost through the entirety of the
production process. This means that manufacturers are then able to not only
reduce development time and costs, but to also move into the area of being able
to predict failure scenarios and potential downtime – an insight that provides
a significant and valuable step forward to increasing efficiencies in product

Gaining real insight

By creating a virtual representation of each physical device, manufacturers
suddenly have a wealth of data on production processes and performance at their
fingertips. But what can they do with all this information?

Software platforms are available that collect data directly from
equipment and operators on the shop floor in real time. This information is
presented on touch-screen technology, which arms operators and managers with a
360-degree picture of the what, why and when of downtime, cycle time, quality,
and scrap.

From on-the-fly production schedule changes, to daily operations
meetings, management dashboards and reports, manufacturing execution systems
(MES) give everyone in the plant, and throughout the business, an opportunity
to take action to improve manufacturing performance. These systems can also be
linked with enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions to connect the entire
business to the actual manufacturing process.

Digital twinning in action

We’re seeing innovative new ways in which the information derived from
digital twinning is utilised in different businesses around the world, and
‘immersive analytics’ has become a popular term to describe the virtual reality
(VR), augmented reality (AR), and other new display technologies to support
analytical reasoning of sensor data.

Donning wearable technology such as smart glasses, manufacturing
engineers can enter a new world of visualising data relating to a specific
product or task. For example, a maintenance team arriving at a building can
gain access to an augmented reality view of hidden systems (for instance,
equipment behind a wall) to see what is there as well as information and its
status. With a touch of a button, the worker is linked to real-time information
about the object, such as specs and usage data, ownership, maintenance history
and performance.

Though AR use is growing, it’s still in the early phases of awareness
and adoption. But for early adopters, AR has helped drive operational
efficiency by reducing production downtime, identifying problems quickly, and
keeping processes moving. With so many benefits for manufacturers it is clear
that the digital twin is here to stay. In a world where new products need to
reach the market in ever-faster cycles and on demand, companies cannot afford
to miss out on the power of digitalisation to improve efficiency, quality and
productivity. Making these savings on time and money will not only streamline
business in the short term but enable manufacturers to refocus that time and
money into preparing for growth.

The technology offers manufacturers a chance to be ahead of their
machinery and anticipate and prepare for costly downtime. Those who realise the
value in investing in digital twinning now will be able to work smarter and
harder in the future; however, those who are unwilling to commit to investment
are at risk of falling behind more efficiency-driven competitors. By bridging
the gap between the physical and digital world, the future of manufacturing is
already here.

Written by Terri Hiskey, Vice President Product
Marketing, Manufacturing at Epicor Software

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