Part 1 of the 4 part series: Digital Twins through the full lifecycle

The Importance of True-to-Life 3D Digital Twins

“The Digital Twin is a living, learning model that allows you to deliver business value by constantly making sure that Twin is a replica of the asset so you can get insight into that asset and take action.” – Colin Parris, GE Digital

In Colin Parris's definition of Digital Twin, notice 2 very important phrases:

Living, learning model: the model must be able to grow and evolve as its twin in the real physical world changes over its operational life. We must have a way to identify changes in the physical world, and then to convey and translate those changes to the digital version: a model management of change (MMOC) in common parlance.

Replica of the asset: the model must correspond in all relevant ways to the physical asset or system it is modeling.

In other words, the Digital Twin must maintain the true-life likeness for the full operational life of the asset or system.

Why is this so Important Now?

As highlighted in Verdantix’s, June 2022 research report on Applications of 3D Visualization, “3D Visualization Software Has Become Vital In the Age of Sustainability.” More and more remote management is taking place; the 3D digital twin takes the place of human vision and cognition. It replaces our physical presence with a way to understand what is going on without being there. Just like we use vision-correcting lenses, surgery, or other means to enhance our vision, if the digital twin replaces that temporarily, we want it to be as accurate, and precise as possible. That accuracy and precision plays out when making location-specific decisions; if a piece of equipment or its surroundings have moved or changed, but your model has not been updated with the new condition, location, orientation, or height, you waste time and energy, and potentially put personnel in danger. When planning intricate procedures that require understanding of access methods, or whereabouts to decide what order to do things, or to ensure junior associates are accurately guided through things, this accuracy is again what enables us to practice, verify, and train on a procedure to ensure safety, speed, and effectiveness.

When the Digital Twin becomes out-of-sync

When an organization sets out to plan and evaluate their operations remotely errors and inaccuracies in the model are detrimental. When that happens, it will cause the team to lose trust in the model, stop using it, and lose the benefits of it. The value of the time, money and effort declines over time. Worse, as it gets out of sync, discrepancies in the model have the potential to cause real safety issues if equipment arrangement is not as we thought, because we relied on the twin to inform our plan.

Can’t I just use the Design Model output of CAD/CAM tool?

While they both use the underlying framework of an accurate 3D model, there is a big difference between engineering CAD models and “as-built” operational models that reflect their different purposes. A CAD model is used as the blueprint for construction. Deviations from the original engineering plans during the initial build and the ”as-built” begin early, and often aren’t even made available to the operations manager, facilities manager, or owner of the assets, although they make an excellent starting point for an operational model. During the life of the
operation (whether it be a building, manufacturing process, or other complex arrangement of assets) additional changes are made to the environment. In some cases, the differences are small, but they can rapidly accumulate to become significant. CAD models tend to be static. They are rarely updated unless the plant undertakes significant new construction, because the effort, and complexity of most CAD tools don’t make light work of this task. In contrast, Operational 3D Digital Twins are designed to allow for frequent changes, to enable the model to span many types of equipment from various OEMs, and to connect to many operational systems of record. In short, they are flexible, dynamic – an Active model, that lives alongside of the operation it is mirroring.
What is an Operational 3D Digital Twin?
And how is it different from a 3D Digital Twin from a CAD/CAM modeling tool?

A true Operational Model contains:

  • a robust Model Management of Change: able to incorporate changes to the environment without undue effort

  • ability to connect and stitch together visual models from CAD/CAM design models, manually or automatically generated scan

  • direct connection to operations systems of record that give it live access to real time data

Operational systems and assets live a long time

The operational life of the capital assets and the systems they participate in can be 30+ years. Maintaining the Digital Twin throughout that life is just as important as the maintenance of the assets themselves because it extends the useful life by continuously improving the ability to diagnose issues in the system of systems. Some operators will become reliant on the Digital Twin to fulfill regulatory requirements many operators to maintain the 2D models, P&IDs anyhow.

For an operational 3D Digital Twin model to last and assist in sustaining the long life of its twin, it MUST be trusted as an accurate and up to date replica of the real-world physical environment. Otherwise, it loses its value as workers lose faith and ultimately stop using it. Because 3D Digital Twins mirror a complex operation, because they assist in extending the useful life, and the effectiveness of large capital investments, and because they require maintenance, a robust, simple to use, cost-effective Model Management of Change (MMOC) process is critical.

The Model Management of Change that works

If maintaining the Digital Twin is important to the effective operation and operational longevity of your system, it must not be difficult, complex, time-consuming, or expensive to do. Three important capabilities in the Digital Twin make this possible:
  • Built-in change capture systems. The old days of manual scanning and model stitching must yield to automatic change capture systems.
  • Automate translation of visual and system changes into the 3D Digital Twin
  • Human-in-the-loop, intelligent process automation: human oversight manages quality control with a minimum of effort
These three important features of your operational digital twin will ensure your Digital Twin can live on and support the operation through its useful life.

What manufacturers should take away

Managing change and incorporating it into the model for the useful life of the physical asset is critical capability of Digital Twins, particularly 3D Digital Twins. To make this possible:
  • Demand a better starting point from your design/build partners: accurate As-Built diagrams, which reflect all changes that occurred from design through the final construction and signoff of the facility
  • Operationalize your 3D Digital Twin: establish a live connection it to your data systems of record for the assets
  • Ensure a robust MMoC process that is low cost and low effort to sustain

  • Establish a 3D Visual Model System of Record during the operational life of the asset/system

  • Work with a 3D Digital Twin partner who has these true operational capabilities built in

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll dig into the process of creating a true operational 3D Digital Twin. Part 3 will go into detail about the how to maintain digital fidelity through a robust MMoC process.

And finally, Part 4 will describe the role that a operational 3D Digital Twin can play in achieving greater manufacturing ability and progress manufacturers toward Manufacturing as a Service.