The digital twin is a virtual repository for all of the files that make up a product. This approach to managing a complex product with variable features is just getting started. One method is the use of product-line engineering (PLE) to create and manage digital twins. With feature-based PLE, manufacturers can build a digital twin for each product instance in their product line based on the features contained in that product.
|This diagram shows how product-line engineering can be used to create digital twins. (Image source: BigLever Software)|
Using PLE, you can create a feature catalog for the entire product line and use it to generate a bill-of-features. It will track the features that uniquely differentiate one product from another. The bill-of-features acts as the digital twin that lets manufacturers track, understand, and communicate with all the products through design stage, production, and into the field.
The Digital Twin on the Manufacturing Floor
The complexity and variations of products like cars call for a system to organize the features included in each individual product. “Products like autos are getting more variations. Features such as interactive cruise control, that has radar to keep you from hitting the car in front of you, have to be managed for each vehicle,” Charles Krueger, founder and CEO of BigLever Software, told Design News. It’s not just the mechanical or electrical system; it’s all of the parts interacting with each other.”
These individual features can be collected into a single source of truth that different stakeholders can access. “The idea is that product line engineering can express your variants in features, and everybody across the product lifecycle can access this digital twin of the product,” said Krueger. “That’s the basis of PLE product designs and bills of materials.”
The PLE system can both create the digital twin and interpret its content while guiding the product through production. “Toward the end of the engineering process, when the product is going to manufacturing, the PLE can understand the content for each digital twin,” said Krueger. “You can see what parts and what software goes into each product. The role of PLE is to help you create the unique digital twin by accurately capturing the features in each product. PLE is really good at that.”
Building the Digital Twin
Krueger noted that the bill of materials and the “bill of features” become the core of the content in the digital twin. “You want to populate the digital twin like it is in the real world. You describe the content of the vehicle in terms of the features. Then you can use that to determine the parts that populate the birth of the digital twin,” said Krueger. “The PLE associates the content with a real instance of the vehicle. It provides everything you need to create the first utilization of a digital twin.”
Part of the reason for creating a digital twin is to keep the list of features straight for each individual product. In high-volume production, that includes tracking the multiple features that change from product instance to product instance. The digital twin keeps a specific record for each product. “Some of the large auto manufacturers produce 10 million vehicles a year. You want to keep the information on each vehicle as precise as possible,” said Krueger. “You don’t have all of the engineering information—that would be too overwhelming—but you have digital threads that lead to that information in case there are problems with the vehicle. Then you can follow the digital thread to the product lifecycle data.”
The Digital Twin Meets the Real World
In addition to the value of a digital twin on the manufacturing line, there is also value in capturing data when the product is in the field. “The digital twin is also designed to send info back to the automaker while the vehicle is being used,” said Krueger. “You continue to communicate with the vehicle through some connectivity. You can look at the fleet or individual vehicles, so you can determine maintenance or upgrading needs and alert the customers.”
So, who is actually utilizing digital twin technology? Is it being used now? “In automotive it’s still conceptual, though there may be some early adopters,” said Krueger. “We see examples of digital twin use in aerospace and defense. We have a customer who provides training and they actually use a pretty good digital twin in their training.”
While the use of digital twin technology is in its beginning stages, many of the largest manufacturers are prepping for its use. “The biggest are automotive, aerospace and defense, and avionics,” said Krueger. “The digital twin is also getting used for complex systems deployed in oil fields. Any place you see a complex system or a product with multiple features, you have a good candidate for a digital twin.”
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.