What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical object or a process which is kept connected digitally to the item itself. It was developed first by NASA in 2010 as a way for them to improve their spacecraft design.

What sets a digital twin apart from any digital representation of a physical item is that sensors on the original, physical item/process constantly gather data about it and send it to the digital twin. This way, the digital twin is always an accurate mirror of the physical item. The digital twin can also use this connection to send information back to the physical item, so it can be used to make changes within the item or process, too.

Process plants use digital twins to mirror a specific item of equipment or particular processes within the plant. As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) progressed and the cost of edge computing fell, it became realistic and affordable to create a digital twin of the entire plant, covering all the assets and processes.

Digital twins are generally thought of as another application of artificial intelligence (AI) and sometimes referred to in the same breath as machine learning (ML). However, there are differences. ML can observe asset behavior patterns, correlate outcomes, and detect anomalies, but digital twins have a deeper knowledge of the underlying physical properties, so they can model the impact of different scenarios to produce better and faster answers to “What if?” and “What is best” questions.

Why are Digital Twins Important for Process Manufacturing Plants?

In process plants, equipment is constantly in use and any downtime comes at a significant cost in terms of lost production, placing great pressure on all the moving parts. Any drop in performance at any stage affects the final product, and most plants need to keep wasted resources, labor, or energy to a minimum in order to compete on price in a crowded market.

A digital twin opens up remote visibility into machinery and processes, removing the need for human employees to enter hazardous situations. Sometimes the issue can even be resolved by using the digital twin to reprogram the physical item, without sending in a human team.

Digital twins can be used for:

  • Increasing productivity through remote monitoring, asset management, and predictive maintenance to spot anomalies and part failures before they occur
  • Raising safety levels within the plant
  • Asset performance and utilization optimization through diagnostics and root cause analysis
  • Enabling robotic process automation (RPA) in a move towards lights-off manufacturing
  • Testing the impact of changes to process controls and workflows, or the introduction of new tools, on plant performance, safety, efficiency, and competitiveness
  • Driving innovation through a “fail fast” approach, thanks to fast, risk-free testing of new scenarios and approaches
  • Collaboration between different teams and departments, both on-site and remotely
  • Creating training simulations that compress 6-7 years of on-the-job training into some months, and prepare employees for rare, abnormal, and dangerous operations
  • Guiding day-to-day decision-making

How Can Process Plants Implement a Digital Twin?

Gather the data you need

Ensure that you have the necessary network of sensors and measuring devices in place to collect the information you need.

Connect assets and processes

Digital twins rely on real-time data that’s always up to date and shared instantly. Implement IIoT to integrate all your smart devices with each other and enable data sharing.

Enhance cloud connectivity

Robust, reliable IT networks and edge computing underpin the cloud connectivity and secure wireless coverage that keeps digital twins connected with their physical counterparts and enables the creation of a plant-wide digital mirror.

Share digital twins with all relevant stakeholders

To get the full value out of digital twins, you need to enable different teams to collaborate with the information and guidance they deliver. A digital twin shouldn’t be seen as a hidden asset that only a select few can access.

How Do Process Plants Benefit from a Digital Twin?

With the insight, information, and accurate data provided by a digital twin, process plants can enjoy better, faster, data-based decision-making, increased safety throughout the plant, and greater productivity, plant optimization, and asset utilization that drives profitability.