The concept of a “digital twin” is beginning to expand beyond just the notion of a virtual product. The idea of the digital twin – a term that showed up a few years ago and is coming into its own in recent months – is that all of a product’s data is contained together, from initial design files through simulation and materials data. Finally, data about the product’s performance in the field will also be added. Lately, the term is also including the product’s manufacturing data.
The twist that makes the digital twin concept important is that computers have greater predictive skills that humans working with physical prototypes. “The digital twin a good definition of what we do. It’s a virtual representative of a physical product or operation. The point is the precision we can reach,” Tom Maurer, senior director of strategy at Siemens PLM, told Design News. “A lot of our technology acquisitions have been in simulation, test, electronics, and software. If we can improve the precision of the models we’re creating, we can predict performance.”
Prediction is the key to the digital twin. If a computer can calculate and predict how materials perform, that computer can create the optimum configuration for the product. “We’ve renamed our whole simulation practice to predictive engineering analytics. System level simulation is predicting how we expect that system to perform,” said Maurer. “I can improve the design requirements and move into the design phase with a higher set of requirements.”
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As the data is moved through design and into test, the original design files remain attached as part of the twin’s data. “The digital twin comes with CAD and software development. That gives a lot of information to the downstream processes,” said Maurer. “If we understand the language of the product from its inception, we can see if it is meeting the desired threshold and how it will perform in the future.”
The goal is to create a model of the product that not just downplays the need for a physical prototype but actually surpasses what a prototype can provides. “I see the digital twin as many twins – the 3D simulation through the product in the field. All of that feeds back into the digital twin model,” said Maurer. “If you look at the physical design, it’s generative design. Let the computer look at weight or aerodynamics. The physical analysis, the tech systems create the shape based on the constraints.”
Taking the Design into Manufacturing
The digital twin in the manufacturing process brings together two virtual worlds, the digitized product and the digitized plant processes. Beyond that, data relating to the supply chain is also part of the mix. “Using the digital twin of the factory, we can see how the factory is performing by looking through all of the data in the MES,” said Maurer. “I can look at my future orders from the ERP and I can create a model of how the factory would need to perform to meet the projections and thus predict the future.”
Maurer points to the Air Force as an example of how a digital twin can assist with the performance and maintenance of a product. “One idea of the digital twin is the Air Force’s large ships. They create a digital twin of every plane the comes down the line,” said Maurer. “You understand the precise configuration that operates at any given time. They create a digital twin to support the maintenance of each plane.”
The digital twin technology can benefit a wide range of industries, but it is particularly well suited to high volume, high mix products. “All of the discrete industries are benefiting from digital twin technology now. The industries benefitting the most are those ones what put a large emphasis on physical design – automotive and aerospace,” said Maurer. “When you’re thinking of creating a high-volume production run, you have to have high reliability in the model. Precision level is your confidence level. The digital twin has to be accurate.”
A virtual reality function in the digital twin package may help in replacing the physical prototype, since it will give users a powerful sense of the product. “We use augmented and virtual reality to impact the feel of the car. In the near future, there will be more confidence in viewing a product in virtual reality. They’re doing that in the test phase,” said Maurer. “In aerospace, physical prototypes were the name of the game, but we were going to get more accustomed with looking at the product in the digital world rather than as a prototype.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.