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Digital twins: Revolutionising product businesses

Among the technological drivers in industrial firms are IoT platforms that implement the concept of a digital twin. We explore the benefits

At its annual Minds+Machines conference in San Francisco last year, GE showcased how a digital twin could be used to optimise real-world industrial assets.

Analyst Forrester defines a digital twin as an instantiation of a real, physical object in an abstracted, digital form that acts as a proxy for all communication to an actual device.

According to GE, the idea behind the digital twin is to go further than working with models. The company says the costs of maintenance versus replacing an entire asset are also considered.

“If a company orders jet engines, the revenue projections become part of the digital twin, along with the designs for the engines, specific materials used in construction and information on the factory where they were built. When the engine starts up, and when it is serviced, sensors feed that data into the twin,” according to GE.

Analyst Gartner predicts that by 2021, half of large industrial companies will use digital twins, resulting in those organisations gaining a 10% improvement in effectiveness.

“Digital twins drive the business impact of the IoT by offering a powerful way to monitor and control assets and processes,” says Alfonso Velosa, research vice-president at Gartner.

“However, to truly drive value from digital twins, CIOs will need work with business leaders to develop economic and business models that consider the benefits in light of the development costs, as well as ongoing digital twin maintenance requirements.”

Driving adoption of emerging IoT platforms

In Forrester’s The digital twin accelerates IoT development report, the analyst identified the digital twin as one of the features driving adoption of emerging IoT platforms from the likes of AWS and Microsoft among others.

It says software development teams are embracing IoT platforms not only for speed and convenience, but also because such platforms have frameworks that support variations of the digital twin concept. This, in turn, offers businesses a new design pattern for managing physical assets.

Managing connectivity

The new approach involves managing connectivity between edge devices and backend systems, and mirroring changes on a virtual model of the asset – in other words, the digital twin.

One company that is starting to look at digital twins is Domakaba, which makes smart door locks. Since 2012, Domakaba has been using field management software, ServiceMax, to help it monitor its installations.

Explaining how the system works, Mark Homer, vice-president of global customer transformation at ServiceMax, says: “Domakaba has been collecting data from devices for many years. Service engineers do a ‘debrief’ on every door. They collect data on a few at a time.”

Such data helps Domakaba and its partners to manage buildings more efficiently. As Computer Weekly has previosily reported, a recent Vanson Bourne study for ServiceMax estimated that industrial companies are losing $260,000 per hour due to unplanned downtime. Predicting failure using digital twins can help overcome the problem.

Read more about digital twins

One of Domakaba’s customers is property management firm Jones Lang LaSalle, which manages Domakaba doors and shutters at a building in South Australia. According to ServceMax, Domakaba’s Australian service centre in Hallam, Victoria, received 338 calls and 289 support emails a day.

Using ServiceMax, Homer says engineers at Domakaba are able to do predictive maintenance. “It is very important that the work has been completed,” adds Homer.

Open my digital door

This is where the digital twin can play a role. Speaking to Computer Weekly, Andreas Häberli, chief technology officer (CTO) at Dormakaba, says: “The digital twin is something I heard about from GE Digital and I like it a lot. We can have a digital twin of a building with access control components where the physical world has a mirror in the cloud.”

This digital twin can provide the engineers at Domakaba with an up-to-date record of every action or event the sensors on the doors have logged; it logs the installation of components and firmware updates, and can be used by Domakaba’s service team to determine the lifetime of the product along with a security log detailing who accessed the door.

It may even be possible to provide close ties to parts and component suppliers and product lifecycle management, enabling an extremely granular level of monitoring and servicing.

Häberli says: “The digital twin represents what happens in the real world. You can get a whole history of the real product.”

The digital twin is a concept Häberli hopes will enable the company to evolve. “As a CTO what really counts is how we differentiate. Differentiation gets very hard in hardware because other people can develop products.”

Powering physical to digital transformation

He says the company looked at how it did business and how to transform it digitally. For Häberli, the digital twin offers Domakaba a way to move beyond being a hardware company that effectively sells door locks. “Differentiation is no longer in the product,” he says. “We need to move beyond where we are as an engineering company.”

However, he says: “Buildings are real, so we can’t forget about hardware.” Rather, the company is adding sophisticated tools for planning and managing installations and the buildings themselves, which becomes part of a wider ecosystem for access control as a service.

“We have to focus on enabling the business to change from a pipeline business to a platform business,” says Häberli.

This is a digital transformation, requiring change management across the company’s entire supply chain from components to product through third-party installers to the end customer. Häberli says: “We know our customers; we know how our revenue is generated and we need partners. Digital transformation relies a lot on finding the right partners.”

This requires a mindset change in the Domakaba sales channel. Häberli says the company’s channel partners will effectively need to act as consultants and run data analytics on behalf of the customer.

Cloud-based platform

The company has developed a cloud-based platform it is now starting to share with its channel. Built on Cloud Foundry and infrastructure from Swisscom, the platform comprises a number of business applications and a back-end IoT stack.

The application uses an interactive digital floor plan of a building. “We can drag and drop templates from our products and then make sure the access control works consistently,” says Häberli.

The application can also be shared with Domakaba’s distributors. “Depending on their level of security clearance everyone has access to a digital twin of the installation.”

Whenever there is a problem, he said the customer can call the dealer, who then has access to the digital twin and so can determine exactly what configuration the customer has installed.

Moving to the cloud

However, like any business change, it takes a long time to move from physical product to the concept of services managed via a digital twin in the cloud. “We are rolling out across Europe and want to offer usage-based pricing,” says Häberli. “But we need to educate the dealers.”

The company is also in the process of moving from DevOps to DevSecOps – which, he said, has its own challenges. He expects it will take Domakaba three years to complete.

But, in time, the company could support intention-based use cases. In other words, Domakaba will be in a better position to understand the usage of its products based on context. “It is not just about technology anymore. It is also a strategic concept.”

For instance, he says an intention-based use case could be used in a cyber-physical system. “We capture intention everywhere. What is the intention of the user? We can track user actions and increase their time privileges.” This may be useful if a user requires more time to open a door.

“We are just starting out,” he says. Potentially, the tools Domakaba is developing will enable it and its channel partners to sell its product in a pre-emptive way. For instance, he says: “We can potentially run AI-powered analytics to look at how to improve efficiency of the building.”

Greater emphasis on software

In the Gartner report, Digital Twins Will Impact Economic and Business Models, the analyst firm draws an analogy between the extent of data collection carried out by the likes of Google, Amazon and Netflix, and how digital twins could be deployed in industrial firms to monitor the ongoing health of internet-connected equipment.

“Developing and supporting digital twins in these environments will require the continuous updating of data collection capabilities and curating (for example, management, security, storage and staging), as well as adaptive analytics and algorithms,” Gartner analysts Alfonso Velosa and Dale Kutnick state in the report. As an example, Gartner notes that Tesla issues monthly software updates to its cars.

The analysts warn this will require even more component monitoring and software updating, and will also require that vehicle makers almost become software providers. “Asset operators will have to add software skills to their operations teams as they add smarter assets, and also add software and data terms to their contracts,” the analysts warn.

The findings reflect the conversation Computer Weekly had with Häberli, the CTO of Domakaba, a company which is in the process of transforming itself and its channel partners to offer digital services for building access control.

This was last published in October 2017

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