No doubt you’ve heard and read about the Digital Twin – the digital model of a product or process that seems to be an integral part of Digital Manufacturing and Manufacturing 4.0. But what is it, exactly, and why is it so important?
It all started with CAD/CAM – Computer-Aided Design and Manufacturing. When a part, product or machine is designed in a CAD system, the result is a digital representation of the physical dimensions and characteristics of the item itself. Engineering software adds to this basic description as it develops more details about the item – such things as heat transfer characteristics, stress and strain, movement (dynamics), and more. The CAM piece of the equation uses the definition of the item’s physical properties to develop the manufacturing processes including production equipment (CNC) programs. Each of these processes adds to the data digital archive.
So, you can see that creating the Digital Twin is not really a primary objective of this activity, but rather it is a by-product of the way design and engineering are carried out in today’s computerized world. The design and engineering files grow to become a very complete digital description of the items and processes.
So that’s how the Digital Twin came to be, but that is only the beginning of the story. As digital design and engineering evolved and spread to all kinds of parts and products, it came possible to simulate the entire production process and ultimate assembly and use of a product and all its parts. And that’s how, in effect, a collection of digital data files became the Digital Twin. These digital representations of parts, products and processes describe, to a great level of detail, what the physical items are and do.
The word simulate in the previous paragraph is significant because that’s really the essence of Digital Manufacturing or Manufacturing 4.0 if you prefer that term. It is possible to design, engineer, and actually manufacture the product in cyber-space, then put it to work “in the field” to see how it performs. Years of use and operation can be simulated in hours or days, maintenance and repairs tested to see their effect, and operating costs and rates determined, among many other benefits.
The real power of the Digital Twin comes from its connection to the real world. The proliferation of sensors and smart devices commonly called the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) allows us to closely monitor what happens in production and in the field. This data is added to the Digital Twin to allow the simulation to self-critique – compare what actually occurred to the prediction based on the engineering data. Any deviations are analyzed and the model updated to better reflect actual experience. In that way, the Digital Twin continues to grow and mature, getting more complete and more accurate as time goes on.
It’s easy to see how Digital Manufacturing can be used to improve products, improve processes, help develop new product variations, assist in the development of new processes, and provide support for ongoing maintenance and repairs. Since the operation of the plant is a part of the simulation, Digital Manufacturing can also make operations more efficient and more effective. Think about how much more accurate planning and scheduling can be when based on a very realistic simulation of what is most likely to occur rather than fixed or assumed lead times and operating conditions. And operations management can be more precise when the system is continually monitoring operations (through IIoT), watching for deviations, and simulating possible reactions to determine the best bring things back in line to meet schedules (and save money) and keep customers happy.
The Digital Twin is the “secret sauce” within Manufacturing 4.0 – unseen and underappreciated, perhaps, but arguably the key component that makes Digital Manufacturing a reality and gives it its power.
See the Manufacturing Digital Twin in Action: