Digital Twins and the Digital Thread change the game by integrating the physical and digital worlds

How the Digital Thread can transform a company’s operations

Digital Twins take centre stage

Digital Twins are taking centre stage as organisations look to digitalise their operations. But how do organisations capitalise on them? Digital Twins are a replication and digital representation of a real-life product or process, using a feedback loop between the digital and the physical worlds, connected to a single stream of data called the Digital Thread. They promise to bring benefits across the value chain by simulating reality and predicting the expected behaviour. This provides valuable insights into the viability of a product or process before anything moves on the shop floor. So far, however, digital representations typically stop at the product level for most organisations where digital models of parts and assemblies are used to facilitate rapid design and optimisation.

From an engineering perspective, creating models is an old concept – for example, Computer Aided Engineering. But only a few leaders have started to explore the possibilities of a full product Digital Twin where these models are connected upstream and downstream. Extending Digital Twins from engineering of products into digital representations of the manufacturing shop floor, and beyond into maintenance, repair, and aftermarket services, will be a game changer as all these areas are inherently interconnected. This means that to unlock the true potential of Digital Twins, your organisation will need to extend the application of digital representation to not only your products, but also associated processes and services.

Design of a component of an aircraft engine offers an example of how the new technology can be used. A Product Digital Twin models the component and simulates its expected performance to see if it meets the design specifications before manufacturing takes place. The Process Digital Twin models and simulates the production line to optimise the manufacturing process. And once the component is installed, through the Service Digital Twin its real-life performance and condition is monitored and fed back into the digital model to optimise how the component should be maintained to extend its service life. The Service Digital Twin can even be used to monitor the operating environment of the component used by a specific customer, allowing you to tailor how you design, manufacture, and sell the component to suit your customers’ needs, thereby expanding your service offering to your customers.

To achieve this, the multiple Digital Twins will need to be able to access consistent data at any stage of the process. Providing this data is the Digital Thread, a seamless stream of data which connects all these elements together into a fully integrated value chain. This data flow is made possible due to advanced analytics capabilities and the falling cost of computing power.

In more practical terms, it means connecting your Product and Application Lifecycle Management (PLM and ALM), Manufacturing Execution System (MES), and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software into a connected ecosystem and feeding it the data collected and created by your Smart Operations platform and Internet of Things (IoT) enabled sensors. The data created and shared across the technology ecosystem is then managed in a unified data layer to interconnect all data bases within a data platform. This not only ensures each component of your technology ecosystem has access to the same information, but also enables you to use this data to generate additional insights to drive business decisions.

With all aspects of operations, from Research & Development, Manufacturing, through to Aftermarket Services, interconnected and shared consistent data, accessible by multiple systems simultaneously, allows for products to be designed, manufactured, and validated anywhere in the world, without sacrificing quality and efficiency. The large volume of data collected through the software, sensors, and simulations driving these Digital Twins creates an opportunity to be able to make better choices right from the start – reducing the number of feedback loops in the process.

Above, in the example of the aircraft engine component, we mentioned how the distinct Digital Twins can bring benefits to their respective areas. If all the Digital Twins are interconnected and sharing the same information, an issue detected, for example, during the maintenance phase means that month-long delays to redesign the component and update the associated processes can be avoided at the end of the product lifecycle. Information on the issue is easily shared with the design team; the component design is updated and simulated in the Product Digital Twin; and the output from the redesign is shared with the Process and Service Digital Twins. The impacts on manufacturing, maintenance, and your customer are assessed before the redesigned component is finalised.

Implementing Product, Process, and Service Digital Twins through the Digital Thread can bring clear benefits to your organisation. Getting products to market quicker, more cheaply, and at higher quality is the obvious business case. This can be achieved by getting the design right from the outset to reduce the impact of revisions and changes, enabling new manufacturing processes in new locations, and creating end-to-end visibility across your manufacturing value chain. Digital Twins and the Digital Thread will also be a key enabler for Digital Supply Networks (DSN). DSN transform the supply chain from a linear process to an integrated and dynamic network that connects end-to-end through a central, digital hub, delivering further efficiency and resilience gains to your organisation.

This, however, merely scratches the surface of the potential: the data and capabilities associated with Digital Twins can also be used to generate additional revenue streams. The Digital Thread will be a key differentiator in aftermarket services by fulfilling the promises of predictive maintenance. It can even open the possibility of offering Equipment-as-a-Service by providing the level of visibility and control required to do this successfully. As we touched on earlier, full visibility into how your customers use your products makes it possible not only to customise the product to suit your customer’s needs, but also deliver an outcome-based billing system where your customer only pays for what is used.

These are examples of where the value lies in creating a Digital Thread. There are also fewer tangible benefits from creating an environment that encourages innovation and progress in your organisation.

Questions to ask before getting started

While the potential benefits are appealing, there are considerations for a sustainable investment. Assuming you have determined your Digital Thread strategy with clear, prioritised use cases, with evaluated business cases, before you commit to this long-term investment, there are a few questions you should ask yourself to see if your organisation is ready to proceed:

  • As the Digital Thread will cut across multiple cost and/or profit centres, has an owner for it been identified?
  • How will feedback between upstream/downstream processes be facilitated? Is the operating model agile enough to support a fundamentally new way of doing things?
  • Are the appropriate product management processes in place to ensure Digital Twins can be applied to product lines?
  • Are there technology partners with which to collaborate in order to deliver the required capabilities?
  • Is the underlying architecture and infrastructure in place to integrate the technology into a connected ecosystem?
  • Is a strategy in place to collect, store, process and distribute this data to ensure it is standardised and integrated across the organisation and the ecosystem along the value chain? Who owns this data and how will it be managed across the ecosystem partners?
  • Are the needed workforce and digital skills available to maintain this?

The list above is long, but it may be better to act sooner rather than later. Most manufacturing organisations (>85%) researched as part of a recent study conducted by Deloitte has a plan in place to leverage the Digital Thread to unlock the benefits of Digital Twins, though only 5% have already built the Digital Thread to some extent. The study shows that your competitors, those you are aware of and as yet unknown disrupters, will implement the Digital Thread eventually.

In the next article we will go deeper into lessons learned and requirements in three key areas that organisations tend to find challenging on the implementation journey: organisational alignment and culture, technology and security, and data quality and management.

We would be pleased to help you navigate the Digital Twins and Digital Thread journey. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us.

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