Good things come in pairs in Industry 4.0

Digital twins are real-time digital images of physical objects, or processes, that are optimizing performance in smart factories

By Michael A. Mullane

Imagine opening your email and finding a medical prescription to treat an illness you didn’t know you had, without any prior physical tests and perhaps before you even felt unwell. Your doctor could have decided on the treatment after examining a digital replica of you, including real time data about your diet, lifestyle and current environment.  

Simulation of smart car manufacturing Simulation of use of digital twin technology for car manufacturing at the Siemen's stand, Hannover Messe fair 2018 (Photo: Alexander Tolstykh / Shutterstock.com)

Medicine may not have arrived at that point yet, but so-called "digital twins" are very much a reality in the world of smart manufacturing, also known as Industry 4.0. Smart manufacturing covers the whole value chain and life cycle of a product, from idea to order, construction and development, delivery, recycling and all related services, as well as real-time integration of user or consumer input and feedback. 

Digital twins are the virtual representation of the elements and dynamics of how a product is made, how it operates and how it works throughout its lifecycle. Digital twins influence the design, production and operation of a product. 

On the other end of the scale, a growing number of major infrastructure assets have digital twins. In Australia, for example, more than 2 000 sensors monitor the physical integrity of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in order to align it with a digital twin.

The technology is integral to the Siemens factory in Amberg, Germany. The plant in Bavaria is 75% automated, but still employs 1 300 people because—at least for the time being—humans still perform many tasks better than machines.

The physical factory has a digital twin that is identical in every respect. It is used to plan the production process and programme machines as well as design products and test them.

Once there is an efficient working model and all the bugs have been ironed out, the physical factory begins production. The technology has allowed the factory to scale production to 15 million units a year, a 13-fold increase since 1989, without hiring more people, or moving into larger premises. 

Digital twins are made possible by the prevalence of inexpensive sensors, networks for the reliable transmission of data and intelligent analytics systems to process and make decisions. Technology is easily available and is enabling manufacturers to understand how their machines influence a product’s tolerances, stresses and design.

According to Siemens the defect rate at the Amberg plant is close to zero. This is all the more remarkable given that the plant manufactures 1 200 different products on the same production lines.

Smart manufacturing can rely on International Standards

Standardization is of crucial importance, as more companies around the world adopt smart processes. Industry 4.0 requires an unprecedented integration of systems across domains, hierarchical boundaries and lifecycle phases.

For this reason, the IEC places a strong emphasis on systems work.  

The IEC Standardization Management Board (SMB) has set up Systems Evaluation Group (SEG) 7 to pave the way for the creation of a Systems Committee (SyC). The group’s scope includes providing an inventory of existing Standards and projects in progress, as well as inviting the cooperation of other organizations to assist in mapping smart manufacturing activities that are closely related and to participate in the activities of the proposed SyC.

SEG 7 works closely with and enhances collaboration between different IEC Technical Committees (TCs). These include:

  • TC 3: Information structures and elements, identification and marking principles, documentation and graphical symbols,
  • TC 17: High-voltage switchgear and controlgear
  • TC 22: Power electronic systems and equipment
  • TC 44: Safety of machinery - Electrotechnical aspects
  • TC 65: Industrial‑process measurement, control and automation
  • TC 77: Electromagnetic compatibility
  • TC 111: Environmental standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems
  • TC 121: Switchgear and controlgear and their assemblies for low voltage
  • CISPR: International special committee on radio interference, and its SCs

The Joint Technical Committee (JTC) 1 for Information technology, created by the IEC and ISO, also develops relevant Standards through its Subcommittees (SCs). Among them are:

International Standards are helping manufacturers to develop their products and services in a more efficient, safer and sustainable way. Many companies, consortia and other industry bodies are actively involved in standardization work.

Standardization is of central importance for smart manufacturing. Industry 4.0 requires an unprecedented integration of systems across domains, hierarchic boundaries and life cycle phases.

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Simulation of smart car manufacturing Simulation of use of digital twin technology for car manufacturing at the Siemen's stand, Hannover Messe fair 2018 (Photo: Alexander Tolstykh / Shutterstock.com)