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Digital Twins Are Great for Clearing Up IIoT Confusion

Oct. 22, 2019
They’re one of the easier Industry 4.0 tools to understand and apply throughout the plant.

After listening to a recent IW webinar including some discouraging data about lack of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) adoption, I realized that it’s incumbent on those of us who are convinced of the IIoT’s transformative benefits to do a better job of selling it to skeptical C-level executives.

I’ve got a foolproof tool to turn around that executive: show him/her a digital twin in action. A digital twin is a digital replica of a physical object’s status, driven by real-time data gathered by sensors, then analyzed and fed back.


A digital twin lets you “see” exactly how well that thing is operating and then fine-tune it.

If you aren’t already familiar with digital twins, take the time right now to watch them in operation before reading the rest of this column.

A twin is both a versatile tool in its own right and the essence of the overall IoT, because, as PTC says, it is the seamless merger of the digital and physical

In fact, investing in a digital twin is one of the first steps you should take in a comprehensive IIoT strategy after building sensors into your devices so their operations can be documented in operation. That’s because of its versatility and wide range of applications and benefits, which will only increase as your IoT investment grows and it’s enriched by additional tools such as AI and AR. 

Referring back to our skeptical executives, they’ll understand it instantly after seeing a digital twin — because seeing a dynamic object in action in real time is believing. (The benefits of this ability to visualize data rather than having to interpret vast amounts of printed data was detailed by Emerson’s Rich Carpenter in a recent IW webinar I participated in). In fact, 65% of the population are visual learners.

When you examine the digital twin and how it can be used, you’ll be astonished by the range of potential benefits for every aspect of your operations:

Maintenance and operations. Let’s be honest: maintenance used to be where you put Ol’ Tom, that not-very-creative but reliably conscientious guy who read the few gauges you had and also tried to estimate when the products you made should be maintained (which was just a guesstimate because of lack of objective information from the actual products’ actual use).

Digital twins elevate maintenance to a strategic function. They allow you for the first time to do “predictive maintenance,” which is a win-win for you and the customer.  Instead of doing “scheduled” maintenance, which was based on estimates of when the average product would need repairs, the real-time data from the many sensors on the IoT device can detect the earliest signs of potential problems, from lubricant breakdown to a part failure. That lets you schedule the repair at the earliest convenient time for all involved, reducing inconvenience and assuring dependable operations.

Twins are invaluable for high-value assets such as pipelines or off-shore drilling platforms that are located in remote locations and/or are dangerous to explore. In fact, the earliest of what we now call digital twins were created by NASA and helped rescue Apollo 13: What could have been more distant or more dangerous?

Design. Until now, product designers had to rely on intuition and skewed feedback from users to identify problems and/or opportunities for upgrades. (It was so difficult to get comments to the company about a product’s features and options that only the biggest fans and critics would make the effort, plus these comments were subjective, not backed with independent data.) Now, real-time data from the digital twin lets the designer “see” in real time how features are being used or ignored, and patterns of misuse that might be due to poor documentation. Frequently, the product can be updated digitally, through software updates, reducing maintenance problems and increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty.  Tesla, for example, does this with “over-the-air” software updates.

Marketing and Sales: The best example is probably the jet turbine industry, where GE, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney have increasingly switched from selling turbines to leasing them, with the lease cost based on the amount of thrust the individual engine actually generates (Rolls Royce markets it as “power by the hour.”). Customers are happy because they aren’t paying if the engine is sitting idle being repaired, while the manufacturers now enjoy predictable revenue streams year-round.

Digital twins’ versatility and potential will only increase as complementary technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) mature.  For example, PTC’s Vuforia AR application allows operators of Caterpillar front-end loaders to visualize possible operating problems while the device is running and feeding back real-time information, without removing protective devices that would put the operator at risk. It then expedites repairs because the exact location of the problem and defective part is isolated.

The IoT’s VisiCalc: what if??

Perhaps the digital twin’s most beneficial use is the least mentioned.

It allows you to instantly, with no cost, and no downside, run “what if?” simulations that model a whole range of various potential changes in the object and its operation, without interfering with current operations or expensive and time-consuming re-engineering. Similarly, this simulation is ideal for training everyone from nuclear plant engineers to surgeons without tampering with the real-world device.  For example, Dow's Virtual Development/Simulation/Training (Virtual DST) system simulates all aspects of plant operations, including batch and route controls, safety systems, and SAP Plant Connectivity software. The company has a twin for every plant.

The “what if” option is the equivalent for the IIoT of what VisiCalc brought to previously paper-and-pencil financial calculations 40 years ago.  As one of the company’s early leaders said in a recent interview with the suitably dramatic title “How VisiCalc’s Spreadsheets Changed the World”: “The ability to ask ‘what if?’ brings out the inner child who wants to play with the data, and the result is inspiration, creativity and effortless learning.” 

A recurrent theme in my columns is that the IoT isn’t just new technology, but a new way of thinking about the products we make and how we operate them. It will take not only digital twin technology but also a parallel attitudinal shift by everyone with access to it—from plant floor operators to product designers to senior managers—to fully capitalize on this no-risk “what if” ability to tinker with changes in design, operations, and even marketing before we will realize digital twins’ full potential to revolutionize the things we make and how we use them.

W. David Stephenson, principal of Stephenson Strategies (Millis, Massachusetts), is an IoT consultant and thought leader. His The Future Is Smart (HarperCollins Leadership), is one of the first books on IoT strategy.

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