As information technology remakes the modern factory, forward-looking companies are creating virtual worlds to optimize real-world manufacturing. The rewards include improvements in business value and sustainability that would have been almost unimaginable just a few years ago.
Among the most important domains in which data-driven approaches are helping manufacturers boost innovation and performance are:
A digital twin is a computer-based replica of a physical object or system.
More specifically, it’s a digital representation of the information embedded within the system. And it’s something that industrial managers can easily study and comprehend—in a way that they can’t, say, a functioning container ship or sprawling manufacturing plant. Managers can use digital twins to predict problems before they occur or to run experiments, exposing the twin to stresses and different inputs without disrupting the real-world system.
The use of duplicates to manage systems dates back to NASA’s Apollo program—more precisely, to 1970’s ill-starred Apollo 13 mission, which almost ended in disaster. The space agency deployed mirrored systems to diagnose the imperiled spacecraft’s problems and devise a plan to get its astronauts back to Earth.
The combination of model-based systems that represent the attributes and behavior of business processes in manufacturing with the recent ascendancy of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is letting digital twin technology come into its own. The IIoT uses sensors and smart components embedded in machines to allow those machines to communicate with other systems—and to feed data back to managers for analysis. That data and the model, together, constitute the material from which the digital twin takes shape.
Digital twins can also guide sustainable manufacturing, letting companies test out different approaches in a virtual environment. That lets them see how they can best eliminate potential waste, whether in inventory, energy use, equipment efficiency or anywhere else.
A digital twin’s most powerful application, however, may be in the design and planning of manufacturing processes and even entire factories. Eric Green, vice president at Dassault Systèmes, cites the case of a company that Dassault Systèmes helped to create a digital model as a starting point for a new plant.
The company realized that it could improve quality and reduce costs by self-manufacturing parts that it had long outsourced. Working with the digital simulacrum, the company simulated different production volumes and flow rates for the parts it wanted to make in-house.
The state-of-the-art plant worked efficiently from day one—the digital twin eliminated the need for a shakedown period. As a bonus, the company now has nearly identical virtual and real environments. This allows managers to more efficiently shift production around various lines.
“They can simulate and optimize for production rates as they grow their business and understand what they need to do before they actually make changes on the factory floor,” says Green. “They’ve now saved a lot of money and become very efficient.”
Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE tech goes further. A 3DEXPERIENCE twin is a virtual model of business processes, with digital continuity from engineering to manufacturing. It’s generated from a single data model on a unified platform—an advantage no other twin can claim. A 3DEXPERIENCE twin also ensures unmatched accuracy and fidelity. When these powerful simulated environments are used for analysis in real time, the result is an unparalleled ability to experiment in the digital world. That in turn creates a flawless experience in the real world.
Organizations are also putting twin-based IT platforms to work to create more value within their supplier networks. A supplier may notice, for example, that a different material is more suitable for a component and suggest its use. The twin can then confirm whether that alternative will meet expectations.
The drive to squeeze more value from networks often starts with a market opportunity. A company might detect a shift in the marketplace, and want to capitalize on it. By mapping a network’s complexities in the virtual realm first, managers can model the entire value network—determining how best to acquire and distribute resources before taking real-world steps.
Ultimately, Green says, a company wants to “maximize the profit mix and the product portfolio mix on a global level, and in a sustainable way.”
“Suppliers in certain parts of the world might be more efficient or better than others,” he says. Impacts will vary “based on total landed costs, which include product costs, transportation costs, labor costs, environmental costs, taxes and tariffs.”
Companies are also using collaborative platforms to create sustainability throughout the value network. A platform such as 3DEXPERIENCE lets firms capture, standardize and analyze data to evaluate a business activity’s environmental and social effects and communicate what’s been learned. Beyond their own operations, companies can collaborate through the value network to reduce waste and increase efficiency—from upfront product and packaging design and raw-material sourcing, to end-stage disposal and recovery of materials.
Designing work environments using virtual twins can make them safer, more efficient and more collaborative. Digital twins can help identify workflow bottlenecks or other process flaws.
Augmented reality and virtual reality systems are proving their utility as part of the worker-training process. Dassault Systèmes designed a system for one manufacturer that uses computer-aided design to create an immersive and interactive environment in which trainees manipulate holographic 3D images. New employees can more quickly grasp complex concepts and gain new insights into processes.
The system also improves safety outcomes and efficiency as workers arrive ready to handle the tools, technologies and procedures the factory will throw at them. The risk of human error falls dramatically. And with less need for shop-floor training and shadowing, the arrival of a new employee can have little or no negative impact on production rates.
Needless to say, when life is easier for shop-floor employees, the whole company benefits. In the United States, an aerospace firm was looking for ways to decrease the two full years it was investing in training incoming engineering graduates. With assistance from Dassault Systèmes, the company created a learning program that gave new hires experience with 3D design and digital transformation software. The new employees became productive team members at the company’s aircraft manufacturing sites that much faster.
Collaborative platforms and augmented or virtual reality systems are also providing a mechanism through which experienced workers can share knowledge and know-how—or what Green calls their “DNA”—with younger colleagues.
Green asks us to imagine a worker helping assemble an aircraft. If the engineering team modifies the assembly process and the worker notices that a key procedural step is lacking, that worker needs the ability to raise a red flag and make sure the appropriate people notice it.
Incorporating digital twin technology into these platforms lets companies test out changes that workers have suggested and identify whether it might make sense to formalize some of their on-the-spot work-process improvisations. The result might be more efficient and improved business processes, fewer wasteful steps and less risk of injury. That, in turn, will boost productivity, empower employees and promote wellness—things crucial to leading companies.
By Tom Clynes
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