Digital Twins in Manufacturing | An Introduction

Most people trace the origin of Digital Twins to a speech made by Michael Grieves at the University of Michigan in 2002. In this speech he addressed all the key elements of digital twins and laid the foundation for what would become a key pillar of the Industry 4.0 movement. But it wasn’t until 2017 that digital twins began to emerge as a key technology trend. It was the spread of IoT devices, both in private and industrial settings, which facilitated this change.

Digital Twin Industrial

What are Digital Twins?

While they have technically been in use since the 1960s – NASA used a model of one of their space craft on the Apollo 13 mission – digital twins evolved in the early 2000s as virtual models designed to closely reflect a physical object or system.  Using sensors, real world assets can be monitored for a wide variety of conditions, and this data can be processed and applied to a digital copy of that asset. By linking together various assets, one can create a digital version of entire production lines, vehicles, transit systems, buildings, agricultural processes and much more.

Why create Digital Twins?

One of the main reasons for creating digital twins is to create accurate, real-time monitoring of your assets. By creating a centralized, visualized twin of a complex system, one can better predict issues such as production bottlenecks, machine failure, resource depletion, and worker safety hazards. One can also take advantage of predictive analytics to foresee problems that would be difficult to spot from a factory floor or using traditional management tools.

There are also many opportunities to use a digital twin to automate processes within the system being tracked. For example, tools within car factories can automatically calibrate when they move close to specific vehicles, speeding up the production process. In transit depots, vehicles can be automatically deployed and directed to the correct parking bays on their return to the depot, creating an ultra-efficient transit system based on real-time data.

How are digital twins changing factories?

Improving system efficiency

The ability to gather data on tool, machinery, worker, and system efficiency in real-time presents opportunities to improve production lines and perform tests on a digital models without having to risk the productivity of the site. The ability to trial and implement far more complex paths to optimum efficiency is one of the key draws of digital twin technology.

Monitoring & Preventative Maintenance

One of the key ways of reducing labor costs in a factory setting is to digitize the monitoring processes of machinery. By using a variety of sensors, including visual data gathered by cameras and analysed by AI, one can automate time consuming monitoring tasks. When anomalies are noticed in the digital twin, maintenance workers can be deployed, as opposed to having regular scheduled monitoring and maintenance. This can also prevent any disruption to production associated with periodic monitoring and maintenance tasks.

Asset life-cycle management

One key advantage of digital twinning your assets is how they can be tracked throughout their life-cycles, from the start of production, to being released into the world (sometimes even after release – Tesla tracks its cars for the sake of ongoing maintenance and reporting). An asset having a digital twin throughout its life means that key data from that asset’s history can be accessed at any time and won’t be lost within legacy systems. In most modern factories, there is still a huge amount of data loss taking place during handover from manufacturing to operation or from design to manufacturing. Business mergers also offer big opportunities for data loss – but digital twins simplify this, compiling all relevant product data in one place.

Cloud-based access

It is commonplace for digital twin solutions to incorporate cloud-based technologies to allow greater access to data and to aid in the transfer of data from factory floor to processing hubs. This ease of access can help managers of different levels keep track of what is happening within a production line from wherever they are in the world. Remotely interfacing with factories and production lines could benefit not just managers but also workers, who can monitor production within their specific silos when they are unable to be physically present. It also allows key workers to advise on production issues across various locations.

Preventing injuries

Worker safety is crucial in any manufacturing environment, and digital twins are helping to raise the bar on what is possible in even the most complex or hazardous environments.  One of the ways in which digital twins can achieve this is by providing evidence to support safety cases where the complexity of a system may otherwise make this difficult. The digital twin can then provide verification of a system complying with new safety standards.

One of the ways that the digital twin can measure compliance is by tracking workers proximity to machinery and hazardous areas. Since the global pandemic, employee tracking has become more ubiquitous. The low cost of wearable tracking sensors now means that companies can track employees’ movements around a manufacturing site, sending warnings when anyone’s safety is flagged by the site’s digital twin.

Product testing

Creating new or updated products often involves lengthy periods of trial and error in a traditional manufacturing model. Now with digital twins, products can be designed and tested in simulation, and the products can be tested in various scenarios, rapidly and at low cost. While this process will vary in each industry, it can lead to the creation of better and more timely products.

Tool Management & Tool Control

One of the most popular use cases for digital twin technologies, especially in the automotive industry, is the operation of wireless tools. For assembly purposes, the factory’s sensor systems can identify specific tools and control their tightening sequences and torque settings, based on the precise asset they are working on. They can also reduce man hours by automatically identifying products on the assembly line and adjusting wireless stools for their needs.

As for Tool Management, digital twins of factories can make the location of tools a simple affair. Alerts can be created when tools are stored incorrectly or leave specified zones. Tool usage can also be measured over time to help with scheduling regular maintenance only when necessary, reducing maintenance costs.

If you would like to see more examples of how tools can be managed in a factory setting, you can view more information here. For Tool Control, please click here.

Is manufacturing digital twins complicated and expensive?

The key change for digital twins in factories is their cost. Deploying digital twins, and the associated sensor and software technology, is far more cost-effective now than it was even a few years ago. This has opened up the floodgates for factory-based digital twin use cases, and many industries previously untouched by the Industry 4.0 revolution now can acquire technology which has been deployed successfully in similar settings, and has a proven track record. This technology can also be applied incrementally. As Michael Grieves says, “It does not have to be an all-or-nothing project. There is a wide range of information that I can collect and process with the twin.”

A note on different digital twin companies and technologies

Not all companies offering digital twin solutions are created equal.

Some companies will offer a comprehensive service and the highest quality, most up-to-date technology. Others won’t. When it comes to the sensors and tags needed for tracking assets within a factory, the capability of the hardware will vary greatly from company to company, with some offerings having weaker, more interference-prone signals, as well as shorter battery life and a less durable construction. The software used for processing and visualizing the resulting data will also vary, with some being overly complex while others lack useful features.

It is important to gain some understanding of the technology being deployed by a digital twin company, and how well it has fared in other, similar manufacturing environments. To gain an overview of the different types of asset tracking technology, you can view our introductory guide here.

A note on terminology

Many businesses offering digital twin technology for industry will market themselves under different terminologies. While “digital twin” can be a useful term when looking to understand precisely what is being created/visualized by these emerging technologies, terms like RTLS (Real Time Location Systems) are often more useful when looking into how digital twins may benefit your business. RTLS refers to the whole system, including the sensors and tags used for tracking purposes, and the software and data hubs crucial for creating the digital twins. For this reason, it is a more ubiquitous term when marketing many tracking-based digital twin technologies in an industrial context.

If you would like to know more about how digital twins can improve your manufacturing processes, please contact Ubisense to schedule a demo.