Digital twins

When I first heard the term Digital Twin, I was immediately fascinated. It opens up an entire new realm of simulation.

Models

A few weeks ago I was at a meeting about Industry 4.0. That’s the term for the full integration and automation of entire production chains. It reflects the impact on industry of various trends such as Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, 3D printing and analytics.

During this meeting, there was one talk that really got me listening (and watching). It was given by a very gifted speaker from Aveva. His company develops software that is used to design installations for the process industry.

What I found extremely interesting is that these days, models survive the design-and-build phase and get to play a central role during operations. There, a model serves as the virtual entity (the digital twin) that holds all information about the installations.

Oil rig

The speaker showed a video of someone in front of a huge screen, manipulating a model of an oil rig. He could interactively inspect the equipment and issue maintenance orders. All by waving his hands in front of the screen. It really looked like something from Star Trek, but it actually exists today.

For the owner of the installation, this digital twin becomes so important that safeguarding and preserving it is seen as a major business concern. The digital twin is itself an important company asset.

Suppliers no longer work with separate, proprietary models but contribute directly to the digital twin. During operations, the model is constantly updated to match the actual situation. This avoids the frustration of operators that work with outdated drawings. As one guy in the video said pointedly: “how can you replace an item that isn’t there”.

Asset management

For me, this was something like a revelation. Once you start to use the model (in the sense of the 3D CAD drawings) as the central location for information, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. Why should information be limited to construction-related information? Why not use the digital twin as the gateway to dynamic process information? Although I didn’t see it in the video, it’s probably already done. It would be great if an operator could monitor for instance the current temperature in an installation by watching the color of the equipment in the CAD model.

And then, one step further, there could be computational models (i.e. models that can predict the evolution of processes) coupled to the CAD model. Then the whole thing would come alive, could do complex model-based control and help operators answer what-if questions. This would truly be an digital twin of the installation. Scada meets asset management.

Digital twins everywhere

Once I had become aware of the digital twin concept, all of a sudden it seemed to pop up everywhere. In a video about Industry 4.0 that I saw the other day, someone from Siemens explained how a model of a modern factory is constantly used to improve the operations and as the central facility for monitoring the processes and equipment. And then I read in a book on IoT (The Silent Intelligence by Daniel Kellmereit and Daniel Obodovsky) about digital twins of equipment that can be used as an API for communicating with a device. I even realized that we at VORtech are working on a digital twin right now: we’re involved in building a model of the indoor climate in a data center that will be constantly kept up to date with incoming temperature observations.

This digital twin concept really connects the dots between many things that we’ve been doing here at VORtech. For years, we’ve been working on techniques to keep models close to reality by constantly feeding them with observations. We’ve built powerful optimization methods and we’ve come to understand analytics and machine learning through many different projects. In the digital twin, all these elements come together in an inspiring new vision.

That is a fascinating thought that makes our work at VORtech even more interesting than it already was.

 – Mark Roest