This article was originally written in French to support the latest episode of “Vers l’IoT et au delà” (Towards IoT and Beyond), a podcast produced by Microsoft in partnership with Usbek & Rica. It has been reproduced in English with permission.
In nearly 20 years, the digital twin has gone from a real-time modeling tool to a lever for the strategic management of networks and supply chains. Here’s a deep dive into the concept of Simulation Digital Twins, or the scenarization of possible futures for Industry 4.0.
In the industry, this is all anyone is talking about: the digital twin (DT), a digital replica of a company’s assets or processes.“Initially, it was a physical object, like an airplane engine, on which you put sensors,” explains Michel Morvan, Co-founder and Executive Chairman at Cosmo Tech, a software editor specialized in 360° Simulation Digital Twins. “Which provided a real-time replica that depicted the state of that engine while the plane was flying.”
That’s all there is to the basic concept. Since then, digital twins have evolved a lot, the Executive Chairman unravels. “You can now do all of that with a set of objects like the plane, the cabin, etc. Above all, you can replicate an entire system, such as a large electrical network or a supply chain, in which you include not only the physical objects but also the processes, the people who work on these objects and all the interactions that there may be with these assets.”
Add simulation to the mix and you get a digital twin which is “capable of predicting what would happen if such and such action are taken”. Indeed, “the Simulation Digital Twin integrates all the interactions of the different parts,” continues Michel Morvan. “This allows you to know the current state of the system but also to simulate and make projections over time. By taking into account, for example, the aging of assets, employee retirement, etc., you can test different hypotheses. “In short,” asserts Morvan, “you gain visibility.”
To better illustrate the concept, let’s take a life-size example. Olivier Pinto is the Group Innovation Director for Digital and Grid at Nexans, a leading company in cables and systems, founded over 120 years ago and established in around 40 countries, with 80 factories and 26,000 people. The company serves a large number of industries such as automotive, aeronautics, energy, construction and telecoms infrastructure. Committed to the energy and ecological transition, it is now making two major strategic shifts:
A major challenge: “The US power grid is called the world’s largest machine,” says Pinto. It is large, since it is the size of a continent. But it is also significant due to the complexity and diversity of the assets which compose it. Helping our customers better understand this infrastructure is key.”
The operators of large electricity networks have indeed very difficult problems to solve. It could be: “When should I replace my equipment? When should I invest in maintenance?” explains Michel Morvan. The complexity of these decisions comes in particular from the fact that they have cascading effects. “We make changes on the right; it impacts the left. These impacts can not only be very expensive, they can also involve safety issues.”
Simulation Digital Twin technology is becoming essential, because with technological advances, this complexity increases: “The complexity comes from the interconnections between the different systems, between the different actions, processes and stakeholders,” emphasizes Michel Morvan. “All information technologies have only increased these interconnections. We are more connected than ever, and so are the machines. This technology not only makes it possible to manage this complexity but also to extract value from it.”
Thus, the digital twin “can be used wherever visibility is needed, where it is important to forecast, but is just as complicated because of these cascading effects. Another key area where digital twins are particularly useful is the supply chain,” Morvan says. “This is an area where you have to adapt to very volatile demand and where you have uncertainties about production capacities. Having the ability to make hypotheses then becomes a major asset.”
For Nexans customers, “the digital twin was a revelation,” says Olivier Pinto. “Earlier, we didn’t necessarily know how to respond to our customers’ issues with our tools. We had no solutions. Simulation Digital Twins have enabled us to finally be able to provide some answers to our customers.” Michel Morvan agrees, “Before, people made decisions with ballpark estimates”. Simulation Digital Twins, he makes the analogy, act like the headlights of a car: it allows its users to have visibility of what is to come. The final decision is up to humans. “It’s one more tool for experts.”