ManufacturingJune 3, 2021

How the Virtual Twin Can Extend Product Design into Product Service

One by one, manufacturing companies are finding their way into the Industry…
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Randall Newton
Randall S. Newton is Managing Director of Consilia Vektor, a boutique consulting firm serving the engineering software industry and related technologies. He is a Contributing Editor at Digital Engineering Magazine and AEC Magazine (UK). Mr. Newton has been in the engineering software industry since 1985 as a journalist, business analyst, publisher, programmer, and marketing consultant. His recent research explores the use of blockchain technology for industrial applications, and the rise of new design technologies for additive manufacturing.

One by one, manufacturing companies are finding their way into the Industry 4.0 world of autonomous, smart devices and cyber-physical systems. One benefit that might not have been immediately obvious is the ability to harness product connectivity for service operations engagement.

As a result, new ideas are emerging for how to bring design into the loop, to plan for service engagement as part of the design process. Thereare multiple possible goals when considering the uniting of design and service operations. One company may create a feedback loop for future iterations or to harvest data that could be used to make immediate improvements. Another might streamline the ability for customers to access product data. Yet another will see an opening to monitor part and product performance in real time.

“If you have to fix something in the field that happens over and over, maybe it is a design issue,” says Josefina Sonnerup, an industry solutions manager at Dassault Systemès. “ It is important to see issues as early as possible. Scalability of testing in the virtual world during the engineering phase really integrates service operations into design.”

Linking design with service operations is a dollars-and-cents issue, adds Sonnerup. “The virtual world improves the real world. It makes sense to extend that model into the field.”

The Virtual Twin has benefits for customers as well as for manufacturers, she adds. “It makes it easy to just point and say, ‘I want this part’ and have the data.” Such use of digital continuity allows “serialized information in the field and part data in the office,” says Sonnerup.

In document-centric manufacturing, there are many Bill of Materials lists (BOMs), but three predominate: the engineering BOM (eBOM), the manufacturing BOM (mBOM), and the service BOM (sBOM). In model-based manufacturing, the same information from these three BOMs is still available, but defined not in a document but as part of the model — and thus the virtual twin. Information about the product can be viewed holistically or at the granular level, as needed. The virtual twin is dynamic, reflecting the current state of both design and use. Information needed by a tech in the field is available, as is usage data that can feed into the next design iteration.

We have written here before about the work of Dr. Michael Grieves, who first coined the term “digital twin.” He argues most companiesexploring the use of virtual twin technology are swimming upstream, so to speak. In his initial research, Grieves says he was “looking at usage in service, using both a physical version and a virtual one.” Moving forward with virtual twin technology for service means “moving from functional-centric to product-centric engineering. It is clear — at least, it is clear to me — the digital twin precedes the physical. It was always intended that the digital twin would be in the entire product lifecycle. Behavioral simulations are more important than geometry.”

Here are a few examples of how progressive manufacturers are using virtual twin technology for service operations:

  • A maker of alternative power generation equipment installs sensors in turbines, which send data back to the manufacturer as well as the customer. The data is used for both service operations and as design input for future iterations.
  • An aerospace manufacturer captures part configuration data for every aircraft shipped. The data is tied to a specific tail number.
  • An A&D research company created a link between product or part service and the original virtual twin of the product. Any changes noted in a manual inspection are added to the virtual model.
  • A robotics specialist uses the visual interface for a robotic arm to connect to the original virtual thread, down to the component level. The connection allows the company to diagnose problems and create a service bulletin based on manufacturing data. Findings from one arm are then shared with virtual twins for other instances of the same product, and can be used for recalls, maintenance advisories, or engineering change requests.

Parts evolve over time, and that evolution has only increased with the rise of smart, connected products. Connecting design with service operations using a virtual twin can help with managing the increased complexity.

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