Digital twins, link reality to the Industrial Internet of Things

Digital twins are software representations of industrial equipment and assets, underpinning the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and are vital to many systems used in design and operation of industrial plant. Mikael Rudin, Digital Strategy and Architectures, ABB Industrial Automation, discusses how in the future, the functionality of these systems will be improved by machine learning, making smart machines even smarter. Autonomous operation will then become a realistic prospect, enabling completely new ways of operating equipment and plant.

The ongoing shift in the industry is so fundamental that it is often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0. During the days of Industry 3.0, which we are just leaving behind, automation and software systems were brought into manufacturing. In the coming years, these systems will start to cooperate seamlessly with physical equipment, without human involvement, leading, step-by-step, to the autonomous plant.

Digital twins have been part of this development from the beginning. These are created whenever a digital system attempts to make a representation of the real world. Initially, the digital twin could be as simple as a representation of a temperature transmitter – the memory cell with the temperature value would be the digital twin. As computer systems evolved, digital systems became more sophisticated and could, for instance, include the transmitter twin in a piping and instrumentation diagrams designed with a CAD system. Today, we have digital twins in simulators; 2D and 3D-CAD systems; VR-, AR-, AI- and ML- systems; PLCs, DCS and SCADA systems; maintenance systems and purchasing systems; and many more. This is the result of Industry 3.0.

But none of these systems can deliver autonomous factories, which is the aim of Industry 4.0. To increase productivity significantly, collaboration is a key factor – not just between people, but also between machines and systems. Now that computers are beginning to communicate with each other without human involvement, they offer opportunities to realize completely new ways to organize manufacturing.

Automotive manufacturers have been early to start developing autonomous products. When designing autonomous cars, there naturally needs to be close collaboration between people, computer systems and the outside world to get the vehicle to perform as expected. A modern car contains a great number of systems, large and small, each with digital twins of parts of the car or the outside world. For instance, vision systems use digital twins of the car’s surroundings. The challenge is to get all these systems to collaborate seamlessly, with the purpose to get the car safely to its destination as quick as possible. Eventually, digital twins in autonomous cars and other relevant systems will cooperate to optimize traffic safety and efficiency.

The same principles apply to the factories of the future. To raise productivity, we need to use autonomous equipment that collaborates seamlessly with people, systems and other autonomous equipment. This is what will raise productivity significantly and fulfil the potential of Industry 4.0.


An evolving model

The data used by a digital twin is enhanced with other information that is relevant to the device, such as metadata, reports, documentation and operating logs generated while using the asset. The aim of the digital twin is to know everything about the device and to continuously learn more. The information is used to optimize the performance of the device as well as the overall system and deliver business value.


Twins working with other twins

The true value of Industry 4.0 lies in the network of machines that create and share information together. The fourth industrial revolution will take the achievements of Industry 3.0 and improve them further, using smart and autonomous systems, system collaboration and machine learning.

Industry 4.0 is at least as disruptive as Industry 3.0 was when it introduced PLCs and automation some 50 years ago. The digital twin is a key enabler of Industry 4.0, as it ties information in systems to individual assets in the plant. This is where Industry 4.0 goes from being a concept to something tangible on the factory floor.


Complete autonomy – the future

With the right information being available at the right time, in the right context, new applications can be designed, using components that interact with each other and the outside world, to the point of complete autonomy. Moving from manual to autonomous equipment and solutions will help make companies more competitive.

As digital twins talk to other digital twins in other companies, traditional, linear supply chains will transform into a digital supply mesh. This will change the way products are manufactured and distributed and make factories more efficient. For instance, mass customization will be possible on a completely different scale, compared to today. Digital twins will be able to feedback information on market demand all the way to product design and factory floor.

The efficiency of operations can be dramatically improved. Using sensors, autonomous equipment can automatically pinpoint issues with machinery and trigger service requests before machines are likely to break down, lose performance or become unsafe.


Less waste and downtime

When overall equipment efficiency improves, the financial results follow, as waste and machine downtime is reduced. The company can make better use of the capacity in the factory and avoid costly expansions, just by making better use of the existing resources.

IIoT and machine learning algorithms also opens a new world of fleet management for manufacturers of plant and equipment. The digital twins of equipment can store information about operations and repairs, forming a knowledge base that can be used to predict the performance of equipment at other sites.

Equipment can be fitted with sensors and sold both as a product and as a service, enabling equipment manufacturers to benefit from providing services, based on the results the customer achieves. This can often be more lucrative than the product itself. The machinery can even be owned by the manufacturer, who will monitor the system remotely and deliver maintenance, repairs and upgrades as part of the service.


The coming years

By combining existing and new technologies, such as cloud computing, the Internet, 5G etc., there is enormous potential for manufacturers to start delivering autonomous equipment. Extended automation systems can be used to create autonomous environments and enable collaboration between clusters of equipment. This will improve productivity and move industry one step closer to autonomous operation.


ABB (ABBN: SIX Swiss Ex) is a technology leader that is driving the digital transformation of industries. With a history of innovation spanning more than 130 years, ABB has four customer-focused, globally leading businesses: Electrification, Industrial Automation, Motion, and Robotics & Discrete Automation, supported by the ABB Ability™ digital platform. ABB’s Power Grids business will be divested to Hitachi in 2020. ABB operates in more than 100 countries with about 147,000 employees.

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