athitat - stock.adobe.com
It is de rigueur for any company to be talking about the metaverse these days, but for German engineering firm Siemens, it is becoming something of a crusade. Following up on its announcement of a collaboration with Nvidia in June this year to “enable the industrial metaverse”, Siemens now seems to have gone all-in.
“We don’t claim that we know what the metaverse is, but we have an idea of what it could be and we want to shape it,” says Peter Korte, chief technology and strategy officer at Siemens, speaking from the company’s Siemensstadt industrial complex in Berlin.
Korte is a slick operator and he is smart. He knows that if Siemens can plant a flag in this space early enough, it will only add to the business’s own transformation plan to become a more digital, software platform-driven engineering firm.
Now you don’t get to be a company that celebrates its 175th birthday without knowing a thing or two about pivoting and smelling what is selling. Siemens celebrated this milestone in Berlin recently, with a dinner in Siemensstadt. Among the speakers was German chancellor Olaf Scholz, who said Siemens had “electrified, moved, united and constantly reinvented the world” – and here it is again, up to its old reinvention tricks.
“We believe digital twins are the building blocks for the metaverse,” says Korte, adding that it’s “all about making it real”.
This idea of “real” is embedded in the company’s drive to extend its capabilities in vertical sectors where it is already strong, for example transport, infrastructure and energy. Korte believes there is a lot of scope for the business to help existing and new customers, such as Volta Trucks and Automotive Cells Company (ACC), to become more efficient and more innovative by using digital twins and partner hardware and software.
The deal with Nvidia in June established that Siemens would combine its Xcelerator open digital business platform and partner ecosystem with Nvidia’s Omniverse, described by the company as a platform for creating and operating metaverse applications. The aim, according to Siemens, is to “accelerate the use of digital twins that can deliver productivity and process improvements across the production and product lifecycles”.
‘Petri dish for the metaverse’
The company claims it now has 58 accredited partners for Xcelerator, all adding features and layers to the platform. For the metaverse to materialise and succeed at any level, it will need lots of partnerships and lots of data sharing. What is not in doubt is Siemens’ digital twin credentials and Nvidia’s visualisation technologies, but Korte’s claim that Xcelerator can be “the Petri dish for the metaverse” is a big call.
But for Paul Miller, vice-president and principal analyst at IT analyst Forrester, this is not so far-fetched. “The metaverse doesn’t exist yet,” he says, adding that Forrester sees precursors to the metaverse in areas such as gaming and enterprise collaboration, and in asset-intensive industries such as manufacturing.
“The combination of clear use cases with a strong body of prior art means that the manufacturing sector is well-placed to move beyond today’s metaverse precursors towards more integrated environments, many of which will incorporate digital twin capabilities,” he says. “Forrester expects investment in industrial metaverse initiatives to double in 2023.”
Miller points to a recent Forrester report, The future of manufacturing, which claims that digital twins, just as Korte suggests, could be central to any ongoing designs for a metaverse within industry. Digital twin adoption will change over the next five to 10 years, he says.
Peter Korte, Siemens
“Technical advances and the breakdown of organisational silos will finally lead to digital twins that realistically follow the digital thread from product design to manufacture, use and disposal,” says Miller. “In the medium to long term, these more complex digital twins will overtake today’s asset- and use-case-specific siloed deployments – they will unlock efficiencies, insights and customer relationship improvements by maximising the value of data throughout an asset’s life.”
Interestingly, Miller says no single supplier can deliver on this promise, which is why he believes Siemens is on the right track by taking an ecosystem approach to its Xcelerator platform.
“This sector has traditionally favoured deep vertical integration and stability, but the collaborative industry ecosystems that have recently come to the fore with an emphasis on enhancing speed and agility are an excellent response to the more uncertain environment in which we all now find ourselves,” he adds.
“Partnership – real partnership, not just a slide full of ‘partner’ logos – is essential for building what we call a ‘future fit’ organisation, which is adaptive, creative and resilient.”
New factory built using a digital twin
According to Korte, Siemens is trying to prove this idea by taking its own medicine. He describes how the company has designed, modelled, tested and built a new factory in Beijing using a digital twin, simulating factory machines, people, robots and materials to find an optimal blend of equipment and processes.
He says it is 20% more productive, a figure that cannot be verified, but the point he is trying to get across is that through these sorts of simulations, manufacturers can find efficiencies, as well as lay foundations for data-driven insights impacting maintenance, product design and people management, including training and automation.
What is interesting is that this is targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), not necessarily at large corporates. By offering it as a service, the company hopes to remove barriers to entry. It is also looking to broaden the market, reaching out to businesses in other sectors, such as healthcare (digital twins of organs have already been created), infrastructure and even natural capital.
Rob Passmore, commercial lead at the Biosphere Foundation, the non-profit trading arm of the North Devon Unesco Biosphere Reserve in south-west England, says he is currently trialling an Xcelerator-based digital twin that combines remote sensors, Earth observation, big data and machine learning to create a non-profit, environmental decision support tool. What is the point?
“Millions are spent daily in our environment based on terrible information,” says Passmore. “From flood defences to water treatment works, and from landscape scale changes to agricultural practices to soil carbon management, we are currently flying blind.”
Passmore’s point is that by simulating the local environment – in this case, a river catchment area in north Devon – he can model scenarios and responses, and effectively work out which processes and procedures would be most effective in maintaining areas or responding to risks.
“While Siemens’ automation and digital twin technologies are more commonly seen in a factory context with robots punching holes in metal, the fundamentals are the same,” says Passmore. “Running scenarios for change management and implementing them in the real world can minimise waste and cost.”
So what is it that makes all of this a building block for the metaverse?
Korte talks about multiple pieces coming together – collaboration, photorealism and immersion, all in real time – to enable businesses to design, build, operate, test and change anything in a virtual world before it is created or changed in the real world.
To illustrate this idea, Siemens is developing its own smart city, called Siemensstadt Square, essentially a redesign and build of its existing complex – which, incidentally, dates back to the 1890s. Bentley Systems, a digital twin partner since 2016, has been tasked with making this happen, building a digital twin design of the city, which is expected to be completed by 2035.
Nicholas Cumins, chief operating officer at Bentley Systems, says they are already well into the planning stage, comparing different scenarios to ensure the complex will hit carbon-neutral targets, for example. From optimising energy distribution and consumption through to traffic management and creating liveable spaces, the digital twin of an urban built environment can allow for trial and error in a virtual space.
For both Siemens and Bentley, says Cumins, it is an opportunity to develop something they can then sell on to other districts, cities, airports, and so on.
Building block of the metaverse
So where does the metaverse come in? Cumins reiterates the idea that the digital twin is “the fundamental building block of the metaverse today”, and that it’s about the ability to have an immersive experience with that, to have real-time interaction with data that is fully aligned, geospatially, with the real world.
“This enables engineering precision,” says Cumins, “in this case a holistic digital and integral city twin offering the possibility to pre-simulate and significantly optimise urban planning and operations. It is fully interoperable, so you are not dependent on file formats or special software or hardware. It allows for real-time multi-user collaboration. We are already doing this today.”
You can see the logic, especially given that Meta has struggled to really define its vision of what the metaverse will be. And that’s the point – it will mean different things to different organisations, and with that will come different priorities.
Gartner’s prediction that the metaverse is more than 10 years away, at least according to its latest hype cycle, would seem to question the validity of using the metaverse as a term of reference, but Siemens and Bentley seem to be justifying this through the increased use of digital twins.
The metaverse may not exist yet, but this coming together of engineering and operational technology to enable real-time simulation is definitely something to keep your eye on.