Research & Best Practices

Understanding the use of a Digital Twin in Manufacturing

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In manufacturing, innovative concepts and pilots often run ahead of the technology available to actually support them. The use of a digital twin in manufacturing is one such concept. A digital twin is an idea that has been growing for years and is just now realizing its full potential — thanks to the availability of faster communication, reliable infrastructure and more easily accessible data storage.

What is a digital twin in manufacturing? A digital twin empowers manufacturers to test, monitor, engineer and customize a one-to-one virtual version of a component or product, whether in development or in service. Digital twin applications in manufacturing have expanded vastly in recent years, with uses at every stage of the industrial cycle, from initial conception to production and on to the actual usage of the product. Through the rest of this piece, we will explore in greater depth the uses of a digital twin in the manufacturing industry, explaining the functions and benefits.

Digital twins in manufacturing are among the most innovative implementations of Industry 4.0 technology, creating true-to-life, real-time access and collaboration from anywhere through industrial sensors and high-speed communications technology. Building a smart factory entails incorporating all this technology — and more — to drive digital transformation and the benefits that it creates. The smart factory and digital twins go hand-in-hand in bringing a manufacturing facility up to date with the latest and most powerful technology in use today.

How does a digital twin work?

A digital twin works by replicating, in a virtual environment, the form and function of a physical part, product or component. As supporting technology for digital twins has grown, the use of this concept has expanded to include in-service parts and products, as well as production concepts for engineering or customization. Digital twins are becoming more widely used thanks to greater availability of high-speed communication networks, inexpensive data storage and increased adoption of technology such as monitoring sensors.

In the development phase, digital twins can be virtually “handled” and manipulated much as a real-world part would be, but without the need to actually produce or even prototype the product. This represents a vast step forward from technology such as 3D modeling, allowing engineers and development personnel to get the most tactile, accurate representation of a product without the need to produce anything in the physical realm.

Digital twins for in-service parts and products fulfill a different function. These digital twins are powered by advanced sensor technology, which provide immense amounts of data in near-real time. This ability allows maintenance personnel, engineers and others to test tasks such as calibration and maintenance, and even measure the impact of adjusting machine speeds or shutting down equipment.

Benefits of digital twins

Digital twins provide numerous benefits, including:

  • Reduced production and prototyping costs: Digital twins in the development and production processes can help reduce costs and pay back investments by decreasing the need for real-world product creation and handling. Applications here include a digital twin model against which to test quality and performance off the production line; more flexible and inexpensive prototyping without the need to create an actual part; and easier manufacturability and quality testing prior to production.
  • More accurate and effective maintenance: With digital twins, personnel can get the most accurate view of performance and potential maintenance issues without needing to monitor or handle in-service equipment in person. This allows for more efficient use of resources; greater accuracy in maintenance functions; and earlier identification of problems, which can then be addressed proactively.
  • Greater innovation in engineering: Digital twins are, in some ways, the next stage in design and modeling. To date, they provide the most realistic representation of an in-development product. The credibility of a digital twin to the actual product allows designers to develop and test various innovative approaches. Ultimately, this allows engineers to make more informed decisions about whether to scrap or move forward with an idea — unlocking even greater potential for design breakthroughs.
  • Easier customization and testing: Digital twins allow for broad and versatile customization options, which can be easily demonstrated to customers and then moved into production. In addition, digital twins enable incredibly accurate product testing, providing critical data about how a given part or component will work in an existing assembly.

Applications of digital twins

Digital twin smart manufacturing technology has a broad range of applications throughout the industry today. These include:

  • Operational process optimization: Digital twin industry 4.0 technology makes it possible to carry out testing, design and prototyping processes with different pieces of equipment from different locations. This eliminates the need to transport equipment and parts among various areas of the facility, as well as different sites. A facility can test fits and interactions between an in-house piece and a component from a supplier on the other side of the world, in real-time and with total accuracy. This provides one of the greatest cost savings across all IIoT trends, reducing handling and transportation costs and reducing wear and tear.

  • Quality control management: With digital twins, QC managers and personnel can compare parts against an exact representation of the piece as it should be. Additionally, they can use real-time production information via heads-up display or other methods. These applications yield vast benefits in production accuracy, safety and efficiency.

  • Predictive maintenance: The use of a digital twin for predictive maintenance can yield immense cost benefits, productivity improvements and longer equipment life. Industrial sensors can detect underlying operating conditions that could lead to potential maintenance issues. These conditions can then be replicated real-time in a digital twin for troubleshooting and diagnostics — all without shutting down the equipment. This enables maintenance personnel to make more informed, effective decisions while vastly reducing downtime.

  • Supply chain management: The benefits of the smart factory and digital twins go beyond the production floor. Digital twins can also be used to assess and track equipment and part condition, aiding in forecasting and ordering. Digital twin technology can also make it much easier to source proposals for new suppliers.

  • Cross-department collaboration: With digital twins, departments can collaborate more easily and effectively than ever — without the need for costly and time-consuming handling and transport of parts and equipment. Digital twins also help to ensure unparalleled accuracy in design and maintenance.

  • Engineering/design: With a digital twin, engineers and designers can create a true-to-life prototype without the cost and turnaround time of producing a physical piece. Because the digital twin can interact with other digital models and data, it is just as effective as if the part were right there.

It is clear that digital twins — and advancing technology in general — are driving major developments in the manufacturing industry, including maintenance functions. At ATS, we utilize a technology-based approach through data-driven predictive maintenance that can improve machine uptime and productivity and boost your bottom line. For more information, contact ATS today.

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