The (R)evolution of PLM, Part 3: Using Digital Twins Throughout The Product Lifecycle

John McNiff

In Part 1 of this series we explored why manufacturers must embrace “live” PLM. In Part 2 we examined the new dimensions of a product-centric enterprise. In Part 3 we look at the role of digital twins.

It’s time to start using digital twins throughout the product lifecycle. In fact, to compete in the digital economy, manufacturers will need to achieve a truly product-centric enterprise in which digital twins guide not only engineering and maintenance, but every business-critical function, from procurement to HR.

Why is this necessary? Because product lifecycles are shrinking. Companies are managing ever-growing streams of data. And customers are demanding product individualization. The only way for manufacturers to respond is to use digital twins to place the product – the highly configurable, endlessly customizable, increasingly connected product – at the center of their operations.

Double the insight

Digital twins are virtual representations of a real-world products or assets. They’re a Top 10 strategic trend for 2017, according to Gartner. And they’re part of a broader digital transformation in which IDC says companies will invest $2.1 trillion a year by 2019.

Digital twins aren’t a new concept, but their application throughout the product lifecycle is. Here are key ways smart manufacturers will leverage digital twins – and achieve a product-centric and model-based enterprise – across operations:

Design and engineering: Traditionally, digital twins have been used by design and engineering to create virtual representations for designing and enhancing products. In this application, the digital twin actually exists before its physical counterpart does, essentially starting out as a vision of what the product should be. But you can also capture data on in-the-field product use and apply that to the digital twin for continuous product improvement.

Maintenance and service: Today, the most common use case for digital twins is maintenance and service. By creating a virtual representation of an asset in the field using lightweight model visualization, and then capturing data from smart sensors embedded in the asset, you can gain a complete picture of real-world performance and operating conditions. You can also simulate that real-world environment for predictive maintenance. Let’s say you manufacture wind turbines. You can capture data on rotor speed, wind speed, operating temperature, ambient temperature, humidity, and so on to understand and predict product performance. By doing so, you can schedule maintenance before a crucial part breaks – optimizing uptime and saving time and cost for a repair.

Quality control: Just as digital twins can help with maintenance and service, they can predictively improve quality during manufacturing. You can also use digital twins to compare quality data across multiple products to better understand global quality issues and quickly visualize issues against the model. And you can apply data collected by maintenance and service to achieve ongoing quality improvements.

Customization: As products become more customizable, digital twins will allow design and engineering to model the various permutations. But digital twins can also incorporate customer demand and usage data to enhance customization options. That sounds obvious, but in the past it was very difficult to incorporate customer input into the manufacturing process. Let’s say you sell high-end custom bikes. You might allow customers to choose different colors, wheels, and other details. By capturing customer preferences in the digital twin, you can get a picture of customer demand. And by capturing customer usage data, you can understand how custom configurations affect product performance. So you can offer the most reliable options or allow customers to configure your products based on performance attributes. You can also visualize lightweight representations of the twin without the burden of heavyweight design systems and parameters.

Finance and procurement: In our custom-configured bike example, different configurations involve different costs. And those different costs involve not only the cost of the various components, but also the cost for assembling the various configurations. By capturing sales data in the digital twin, you can understand which configurations are being ordered and how configuration-specific revenues compare to the cost to build each configuration. What’s more, you can link that data with supplier information. That will help you understand which suppliers contribute to product configurations that perform well in the field. It also can help you identify opportunities to cost-effectively rid yourself of excess supply.

Sales and marketing: The digital twin can also inform sales and marketing. For instance, you can use the digital twin to populate an online product configurator and e-commerce website. That way you can be sure what you’re selling is always tied directly to what you’re engineering in the design studio and what you’re servicing in the field.

Human resources: The digital twin can even extend into HR. For example, you can use the digital twin to understand training and certification needs and be sure the right people are trained on the right product features.

One twin, many views

Digital twins should underlie all manufacturing operations. Ideally you should have a single set of digital twin master data that resides in a central location. That will give you one version of the truth, and with “in-memory” computing-based networks plus a lightweight, change-controlled model capability, you’ll be able to analyze and visualize that data rapidly.

But not all business functions care about the entire data set. You need to deliver the right data to the right people at the right time. Design and engineering requires one set of data, with every specification and tolerance needed to create and continuously improve the product. Sales and marketing requires another set of data, with the features and functions customers can select. And so on.

Ultimately, as the digital product innovation platform extends the dimensions of traditional PLM, at the heart of PLM is an extended version of the digital twin. In future blogs we’ll talk about how you can leverage the latest-generation platform from SAP, based on SAP S/4HANA and SAP’s platform for the Internet of Everything, to achieve a live, visual, and intelligent product-centric enterprise.

Learn how a live supply chain can help your business, visit us at SAP.com.


John McNiff

About John McNiff

John McNiff is the Vice President of Solution Management for the R&D/Engineering line-of-business business unit at SAP. John has held a number of sales and business development roles at SAP, focused on the manufacturing and engineering topics.