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Digital Twin: What, Where, & Why

Category: Manufacturing Technology Jun 30, 2021

The digital twin is being discussed more frequently every year in the manufacturing ecosystem. In this article, we provide an overview of the basics, including its value proposition. First, a simple and straightforward definition of the digital twin: The digital twin is a virtual representation of an object or system that spans its lifecycle, is updated from real-time data, and uses simulation and machine learning to help decision-making.

And to add a bit more detail, a digital twin also includes design specifications and engineering models describing the geometry, materials, components, and behavior – the as-built and operational data – unique to the specific physical asset or process that it represents.

Sensors are a key part of what makes a digital twin possible because they collect data from the equipment or process and bring it into the digital model, and it is not surprising that the digital twin has been further realized in the manufacturing industry than many other industries and already has many use cases.

The Value of the Digital Twin
The value of the digital twin is its ability to let the user look at what is happening in a manufacturing process or to a specific physical asset, such as a piece of equipment, or what will happen in the future, providing insights into performance and potential problems. It does this by taking the real-world data about the object or process as inputs – often from sensors – and producing outputs that are predications or simulations of how the object or process will be affected based on those inputs. Simulation and machine learning software a key part of this process as well.

Digital Product Design and Testing
The digital twin allows products to be digitally designed and tested before being physically produced – commonly known as virtual commissioning – enabling engineers to diagnose operational, design, and other problems before those problems manifest in the physical product as well as test proposed repairs or maintenance solutions before applying it to the physical twin.

Building a digital twin is complex, and there are currently no standardized platforms in the market; commercial products have been developed by some of the largest companies in the field, including GE, Siemens, and IBM, however.

Simple Use Case of the Digital Twin
A relatively simple use case illustrates a practical application of the digital twin for virtual commissioning; this use case was demonstrated by Siemens at the HANNOVER MESSE tradeshow in April 2019. Siemens worked with Chinese machine manufacturer Bozhon Precision Industry Technology Co. Ltd. to develop a digital twin for a machine that Bozhon was concurrently manufacturing in China. It demonstrated how the front and back of a cell phone housing are joined together.

Bozhon’s objective was to improve engineering efficiency and accelerate the development, delivery, and commissioning of new machines at the customer site. A virtual 3D model of the planned machine was created, including an interface with Siemens’ cloud-based operating system MindSphere. This enabled data to be recorded and analyzed during subsequent operations and to facilitate actions such as predictive maintenance and power optimization.

The digital twin was a fully detailed representation of the actual prospective machine that allowed its sequences of movement to be simulated. The entire value chain was comprehensively represented, tested, and optimized in digital form – from product design through planning and designing the machine itself – all the way to the production process and performance.

And while the developers were working step-by-step to simulate the machine using the digital twin while also completing a virtual commissioning process, the actual machine was being manufactured at the same time in China.

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