Digital twins – a new standard in industrial production
The digital twin is a burning topic within manufacturing industries. While it is often included in lists of today’s most strategic technologies, it has yet to be widely adopted in practice. Matti Kemppainen, Director of Research and Innovation at Konecranes, discusses the implications for manufacturers of the rolling out of digital twins. According to Kemppainen, digital twins are set to be a new standard for industry.
A digital twin refers to a virtual representation or model of a physical entity or system, or even an entire factory. The real world and the digital world are brought together via sensors attached to the physical asset, generating real-time data, which is analyzed in the cloud and presented to users in a way that helps them to better understand it and to make decisions based on data.
The uses of a digital twin include analysis, simulation and control of real-world conditions as well as potential changes and improvements in the manufacturing process. Matti Kemppainen, Director of Research and Innovation at Konecranes, recognizes a strong hype around digital twins. According to him, however, there are not yet many functioning examples of them.
Kemppainen’s unit is working towards discovering the best way to create a digital twin of a new product. “The creation of a digital twin ought to start from the very beginning of the chain, and therefore it should cover the design phase of the new product. The digital twin’s heart starts to beat when the completed product is equipped with sensors and connected to the digital world. Traditionally, the design or model of a product is ‘dead’ in the sense that after the product is built and completed, the model remains as it is. In contrast, the digital twin ‘lives’ with the product throughout the product’s lifespan,” Kemppainen explains.
Multiple benefits for businesses
The business benefits of digital twins are clear: The digital twin grants control over the whole production chain, which increases productivity. Maintenance and interruptions can be predicted more accurately, and it is possible to experiment with simulation. “Simulation allows for planning improvements in the process, such as the replacement of components, without interrupting manufacturing, and enables the preparing of alternative plans in case of malfunctions or disturbances,” says Kemppainen. Moreover, safety is improved when processes are simulated continuously. “The device and the products are under continuous control, and there should be no more surprises,” he says.
Operator training is one use case of the digital twin. Kemppainen gives an example: “A crane operator can wear augment reality (AR) glasses and operate a digital version of the crane that behaves exactly like the real crane. Moreover, with AR glasses, machinery can be virtually disassembled into its components in front of the trainee’s eyes. It then becomes easier for a learner to understand how it functions than by looking at the real unit, the insides of which are normally covered by a hood when the machine is up and running.”
“A digital representation of a physical asset is particularly useful in conditions where they are difficult to reach, for instance in wind parks or in ships sailing in the middle of the sea.”
The combination of a digital twin and augmented reality has another advantage. “A digital representation of a physical asset is particularly useful in conditions where they are difficult to reach, for instance in wind parks or in ships sailing in the middle of the sea. It may not be efficient to have an expert technician onboard all the time. With a digital twin and AR glasses, technicians can solve occurring problems remotely,” Kemppainen explains. “In such environments, well-executed digital twins help to predict maintenance, and building them is worth the cost,” Kemppainen states.
Making the most out of a digital twin
In terms of individual products, data gathered throughout the lifespan of a product is useful, but in Kemppainen’s view, comparable data is what creates the most value. According to Kemppainen, the most benefit can be gained when there are digital twins of an entire series of products. “Data from multiple sets of twins can be compared to one another to find out whether a problem occurs frequently in products that are used in similar conditions. Hundreds, even thousands of variables can be compared to find clusters of products that are used similarly and that are in different stages of their lifespan,” he says.
“Devices connected to AI can order maintenance independently, based on observations of the device’s performance. However, sometimes comparison against data on other devices’ performance reveals that there is in fact no need to do anything, because the performance observed is normal under prevailing conditions. When there is a reference list comprising a million devices and all their parameters, it is possible to find a parallel that helps to predict use or assess condition,” says Kemppainen. He illustrates: “For instance, if there is a reference list of hundreds of thousands of cranes at hand containing all data on each individual crane throughout its lifespan, it is possible to match and compare the performance of a group or batch of cranes and find a pattern in how the environment and surrounding conditions impact performance. Consequently, an individual crane’s maintenance and use can be predicted more realistically. Without real use data, all we have are estimates.”
The challenge of getting started
From Kemppainen’s perspective, the reality is that there is still plenty of work to do in order to keep a set of digital twins in good condition throughout the product’s lifespan. Obviously, setting up a digital twin requires a heavy IT system. As the lifespan of industrial products can range from 30 to 40 years, the price tag of a digital twin may turn out to be sizeable. Products and components are repaired and replaced, IT systems are updated, and converting data to new formats is not without cost. Human interference also causes trouble: “Mechanical devices such as hoists cannot be covered entirely with sensors, so if a digital twin of a hoist is in use, the system is going to require manual updates whenever maintenance or other changes take place. Humans are not as accurate as computers, and therefore manual updating always entails a risk of error,” notes Kemppainen.
Accordingly, many companies speculate whether they will need all the sensors that a digital twin would require. “Investing in a digital twin may feel pointless if other components in the system are incompatible. It is easy to end up in a chicken-or-egg situation, where it is difficult to decide when to kick off the digitalization of processes,” Kemppainen says. Therefore, he would rather emphasize the gains of digital twins in new products, systems and facilities. “In an old factory, it is not too realistic to expect everything to be digitalized, especially if there are components of different ages included. But in the future, when a new factory is built, basically all of it will be represented digitally. This can constitute a technological leap that makes the difference and really sets the factory in the position to beat the older competitors.”
The biggest advantages from digital twins are currently seen in critical processes and in very limited contexts, such as aircraft turbines. Kemppainen, however, maintains that manufacturers in all industries should keep a close eye on new developments and get ready to make the leap into the digital world at the right moment. “We should bear in mind that even smaller scale digitalization benefits companies. It’s a matter of getting started and moving forward area by area. Soon it will be standard procedure that a digital twin is included in all new acquisitions, as manuals currently are.”
Matti Kemppainen works as Director of Research and Innovation at Konecranes.