Virtually Reality: Future Factories Run by Digital Twins

A*STAR has built a testbed for digital twins, the virtual counterparts of real manufacturing equipment. These factory innovations could help companies save huge amounts of time and money by predicting and adjusting for their partner machine’s condition on the go.

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Imagine that a manufacturing giant has a machine on one of its factory floors in which a spindle is about to snap. In a conventional factory, the whirring machine will give no warning of its impending malfunction, and its failure will come at a random moment. Diagnosis and repair will be relatively slow, constrained by data collection and the organizing of human and material resources. For a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company, the lag can be costly. “Because of the high volume, we’re talking about millions of dollars in losses for every hour of down time,” says Stuart Wong, the senior group manager at the Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) in Singapore, where a number of companies collaborate with A*STAR researchers on advancing manufacturing technology, including making highly intelligent, sensorized machines.

Digital twins will make factories smarter

With some help from ARTC’s model smart factory, a manufacturing technology testbed that opened in August, kinks could be navigated using a concept known as a ‘digital twin’. The idea is that machines will be sensorized, so that the spindle in the machine is continually monitored and its performance data sent to a central control room. There, the data is fed into a computer that acts as a digital twin of the machine – a virtual copy that accurately reflects the machine’s current operating status based on real-time sensor data and physics modeling. The digital twin, detecting a slight wobble in the spindle, might adjust its physical counterpart’s operating parameters to correct for the wobble. Or, if the wobble can’t be corrected for, it might warn of an impending malfunction.

In the control room an operator would then be tipped off, and this person can then set off a standardized response. “The digital twin might then create a maintenance work order, determine whether you could reroute production so that delivery is not impacted, find the appropriate maintenance personnel, and tell them where to go,” says Anikath Murali Das, one of ARTC’s program managers. Those maintenance personnel could quickly repair or replace the faulty machine, guided, either by a tablet showing a customized data feed on the impacted machine, or by a set of augmented reality glasses. For FMCG companies such as Nestlé, working with ARTC on technologies like this enables them to minimise down time and improve performance and capital efficiency in their factories.

Many of these advances may sound a bit like science-fiction, but all of the necessary technologies are in development at ARTC. For example, ARTC is building augmented reality capabilities using Microsoft’s HoloLens, a type of goggle that mixes visuals of the real world with digitally enhanced overlays. Alongside this, ARTC researchers are building a suite of web-based applications that will give roving workers access to dashboards of important data on their phones and tablets, as well as the means to dial into virtual help if needed. “If some maintenance or repair task is beyond the scope of a worker, [using our tools] a colleague somewhere else could see exactly what the worker standing at the machine sees and guide them on what to do,” explains Das.

To feed information to these applications, the group is actively investigating how to add sensors to machines from industrial partners. “We have a machine on loan from a company which we have sensorized ourselves,” says Das. “We have put in 43 sensors to look at vibration, temperature, and acoustic emissions.”

ARTC has also developed a digital-twin of a co-bot, a robot designed to physically assist a human operator with tasks such as moving hot or heavy objects. At the moment, information flows only from the physical co-bot to its digital copy, but Wong says that ARTC’s digital twins will eventually be bi-directional, so the digital version can adjust the operation of its physical twin in real time, instantly reacting to the information it receives.

There are security implications of data flowing from smart control rooms directly controlling millions of dollars of expensive, high-precision equipment that ARTC is addressing. “The security of the data is the one thing that everyone is concerned about,” says Das. In addition to the security questions raised by having a centralized control room are generalized concerns around having infinitely more data. But this data can be very useful in tracing old faults. For example, when companies hear from their customers that their products have quality problems. Typically, by the time a customer delivers feedback like this, it can be difficult to diagnose what might have caused the problem. So, Das explains, the ARTC digital twin model factory wants to keep all relevant data. “We can go back to a particular day, look at all the dashboards, drill down, diagnose and solve the problem.” But in conceiving these systems, Wong says that it’s vitally important to focus on designing software architecture that is very secure, as well as scalable, reliable, and lag-free.