Seeing Double – Why Siemens invests in digital twins
The term “digital twin” gained a reputation in smart manufacturing during 2017. What is behind the buzzword? Siemens has implemented the concept in several production plants and here’s why.
What is a digital twin?
A digital twin is an accurate virtual model of a physical asset or group of assets. It serves as a tool for monitoring ongoing production processes and a virtual environment for testing new workflows. This is achieved with an interactive 2D map or a 3D modelled copy of the physical objects.
As manufacturing processes become more complex, their companion models increase in complexity. By combining artificial intelligence and machine learning with live data it’s possible to create digital simulations that update and improve in real-time as their physical counterparts change.
The idea of digital twins is not particularly new. NASA has run complex simulations to monitor spacecraft that are beyond their physical reach, but as part of what’s becoming known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, many manufacturers like Siemens are beginning to unlock the value of digital twins.
Case Study: How Siemens works with Bausch + Ströbel
Bausch + Ströbel’s manufacturing plant in Ilshofen, Germany is following a digitisation strategy with digital twins at their core. Bausch + Ströbel specialises in machines for pharmaceutical companies to fill and package highly sensitive material like ampules, bottles and syringes.
In the past, the company has used custom-built wood models to test the function, design and usability of their machines. These models could also simulate factors like mechanical properties, ergonomics and conveying paths but in order to generate more accurate data, the models needed to be digitised.
In cooperation with Siemens they developed a virtual representation of the plant on a digital platform. It offers multiple benefits throughout the whole production cycle: from production planning to monitoring operations, analysing defects and accelerating the modernisation of systems and plants.
1. Production Planning
With the digital twin, future manufacturing environments can be built and tested in the digital space, before incurring the costs of investing in new equipment.
At Bausch + Ströbel, a 3D model of new production lines can now be explored virtually. Errors or signs of wear can be spotted in this early stage of production planning and changes are easily made.
Many external suppliers also deliver a digital twin alongside their product. Implemented in the factory simulation they can be tested and analysed cost-effectively in advance of their physical installation.
After optimisation, the model goes back into the design and its data is stored for steps ahead.
2. Live Monitoring
From this point on the twins are permanently connected to each other. The physical plant will always be mirrored by it digital copy to ensure continuous improvements to the production process.
Data collected in the real-life production process feeds the digital twin. This enables engineers to gain knowledge of existing processes and the root of errors. They can detect flaws, solve them immediately and thereby significantly save time and costs.
3. Optimising performance
During the processes of planning, testing and operation, the digital twin constantly collects information. Machine learning makes it possible to identify trends and patterns within this data and to improve the model over time. These insights can be applied to redevelop the physical system.
Manufacturing in shift production at a 100,000 employee plant does not leave much space for experiments. The virtual twin however offers the perfect sandbox to try out changes to optimise the production process.
In Ilshofen the success shows, with fewer disruptive incidents occurring to slow down the workflow and those that do occur are identified and fixed earlier. Overall Siemens estimates an enhanced efficiency of at least 30 percent by 2020.
Siemens is not the only company investing in digital twin software. Other big players like General Electric are also seeing double. From single machines to whole manufacturing plants, virtual copies are opening up opportunities in nearly every industry.
These developments are not merely a by-product of increasingly comprehensive digitisation, but a direct reaction to the increasing demands of modern manufacturing. The trend goes towards more specialisation and increasing variety of products and processes.
This puts pressure on manufacturers to provide a high level of flexibility without consuming more time, energy and resources than previously. Digital twins are made to adapt and change, and that’s why they are here to stay.