One of the more ethereal ideas introduced by Industry 4.0 is that of the digital twin. Actually, the idea of the twin is not new and has been around since NASA introduced the first virtual environment as a way to optimise the performance of assets physically too far away to manage by conventional methods. For instance, when Apollo 13 ran into trouble on its journey to the moon, it was the innovation of mirrored systems here on earth that allowed ground-based engineers and flight controllers to figure out how best to salvage the mission.
However, it is only recently through the digital technologies of the Industrial Internet of Things that the idea became cost effective to implement in commercial applications. The digital twin is a virtual (computerised) representation of a physical object. In the case of manufacturing, this would usually be a process, but could even be an entire production facility. The twin then acts as a connection between the virtual and physical worlds.
The physical plant is linked to its virtual foil through sensors equipped with digital communication capability, which means that the digital model experiences the same process-related conditions that its physical counterpart is subject to in real-time. A common use of the twin technology is digital prototyping, which allows equipment to be designed and tested in a virtual environment before anything physical is ever built. Another powerful application is the use in equipment monitoring and failure simulation to implement predictive maintenance strategies.
The twin is a mixed reality solution that allows engineers to bring new machines (or even entire plants) to life digitally, before any physical assets actually exist. It allows new designs or plant modifications to be tested and debugged before any capital expenditure is incurred. It also finds applications in training, and the possibilities for new product development are endless.
By extending beyond a 3D CAD model to incorporate engineering and operating data, the digital twin is able to represent increasingly greater dimensions of the physical asset in terms of its past, present and future. As a result, the concept encapsulates a broader set of dynamic interactions occurring within the physical asset, such as fluid flow, heat and material balances, yield, energy input, and human operator behaviours. These interactions are critical for asset performance management and maintaining facilities within optimum operating windows for safety, reliability and profitability.
What one has to remember though is that the digital twin is purely a means to an end, and not the end in itself. The end-game has not changed; the strategy to achieve it has simply evolved. Industry must continue to strive for optimally efficient business outcomes in terms of operation with no safety incidents, no unplanned outages, nimble response to change, a well-trained and motivated and workforce, and a culture of profitability through customer satisfaction. The digital twin is simply a vehicle to achieve superior results through simulation in these areas, and to achieve them in a sustainable manner in the shortest possible time.
Steven Meyer Editor: SA Instrumentation & Control firstname.lastname@example.org
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