Digital Twin Concept Goes from ‘Nice to Have’ to ‘Must Have’
Consumer electronics have come a long way since the 1980s, when modernizing your equipment meant walking into a retail store and selecting a stereo system in either black or silver. Today consumers are much more tech savvy. Whether you’re purchasing a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone, you can choose the size of the screen, amount of internal memory, speed of the processor, external color, carrying case, accessories and add-on devices.
While technological advancements have improved lives over the past 40 years, they’ve also complicated design and manufacturing processes, even when it comes to products outside the consumer realm. Everyone has grown used to a “build your own” mentality and the instant gratification of overnight shipping. Today, companies have to anticipate what their buyers will want and then manufacture part of the product to allow for the rest to be customized — and do that with a quick turnaround and regular pricing. They also need to be continuously preparing for “the next big thing.”
Digital twin technology has helped make the research and development process easier and more affordable for manufacturers, said Fram Akiki, vice president of electronics and semiconductors for Siemens Digital Industries Software. The concept involves creating a model that replicates what the product is going to do and then tests it for safety, functionality, interoperability and quality — all digitally via technology, before anyone installs the first nuts and bolts.
“In the past, when you talked about computers, it was an IT or techie discussion,” Akiki said. “But today, everyone from my parents to young kids to friends all ask me about anything from smartphones to 5G to autonomous vehicles. That is proving very challenging for the electronics and semiconductor industry. As consumers start to demand all of this technology in all of the products and services they’re using, those products and services become subject to consumer trends.”
Siemens Digital Industries Software, part of the multinational conglomerate Siemens AG headquartered in Munich, Germany, has been helping companies address today’s challenges.
“One way is to help companies better simulate their manufacturing line before they build it out,” Akiki said. “Or if they want to change their manufacturing line, then before they physically go and do something, they’re able to simulate it with a high degree of reliability so they know, when they make these changes, this is the type of output and productivity they can expect. When they’re actually running the manufacturing line, and they need to keep it running at its optimal point for productivity and cycle time, we have software that helps them do that.”
The software also allows companies to gather and use the data generated by equipment on the manufacturing line. With this information, they can better optimize their processes and predict when equipment needs to be repaired or replaced before it goes down unexpectedly and causes a disruption in production.
“All of this is fundamentally based on the concept of the digital twin,” Akiki said. “It involves developing a digital model that essentially mimics what happens in the physical world and being able to use that model to conduct some what-if situations so that when you go back to the physical world with changes or optimizations, you have a high degree of confidence you’re going to be successful.”
3 Eras of Growth
Akiki is based in San Diego, but his team has been working in Central Florida with organizations including BRIDG, a not-for-profit public-private partnership that operates a microelectronics fabrication facility in Osceola County’s emerging NeoCity. He has been in the technology industry for about 35 years, through what he calls three “eras” of development.
He started off working with IBM in the “compute” era. IBM computers were massive machines that took up specially made rooms that had hollow floors to hold their cabling underneath and very chilly temperatures to keep them from overheating.
Akiki moved to Qualcomm during the “connectivity” era, when computers shrunk to desktop and then laptop size and could now connect to each other through the Internet. The first mobile phones were attached to power packs carried in bags. Then everything changed with the invention of the smartphone, which allowed people to carry around a mini-computer embedded into a portable telephone.
Today, the third phase is the “digital transformation” era. With the Internet of Things (IoT), people can control all kinds of devices through voice commands and telephone apps. In manufacturing, an industrial IoT is leading to Industry 4.0 factories.
“Technology is not slowing down,” Akiki said. He points to digital twin technology, which has gone from being something that is “nice to have” to being a “must-have” for survival in design and manufacturing.
One example is the semiconductor industry, which has been using digital twin technology for decades, he said. “It was a necessity to be able to model and simulate how a chip would perform before you built the chip. That has only become more important because to build the chip, it costs tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to develop and design, so you do want to make sure you get it right the first time.”
Another example is in the development of autonomous vehicles. Getting to the top level of safety through test-driving them would take decades if not a century, he said. Through high-powered simulation work, vehicles that operate without drivers are already emerging onto roadways today.
Akiki’s team offers solutions that fall into three “buckets”: design and development, or ideation; manufacturing, or realization; and long-term product use, or utilization.
“One of the areas we’re focused on is how we integrate these various solutions in a smart way across disciplines that have not typically been integrated or working with each other,” Akiki said. For example, electronics companies typically have had the mechanical and electrical engineering teams work separately. The mechanical engineers determine what the product looks like on the outside, and the electrical engineers design the inner workings.
“They would maybe get together at the start of the project, at the middle and at the end,” he said. “The mechanical engineer would map out an enclosure, send it to the electrical engineer and say, ‘This is your enclosure. You’ve got to fit everything in there. Figure it out.’”
Smartphone manufacturers are striving to get all of the electronic elements they need into a case as thin as 7 millimeters and still have the device be used as a high-definition camera as well as a GPS tracker, a music player, a health monitor, a weather predictor, a banking assistant and, of course, a telephone.
“To get it to market quickly, there has to be a much closer collaboration between the people designing the board and electronics inside the device and the people designing the case and worrying about things like whether it will survive a fall onto the ground or get too hot,” Akiki said. “We’ve developed solutions that have a strong collaboration between electronic and mechanical CAD tools so they can communicate with each other and share data. So even though these disciplines might be in different parts of the world, they can collaborate in real time. When a design gets changed on the mechanical side, the electrical folks can know instantly and be able to react.”
In the end, the electronics and semiconductor industry is all about improving lives, Akiki said. “Those are some of the things that make me feel proud to be an engineer and be in this industry, when you see your technology making a difference in the improvement of human life and the human condition, not just for the sake of ‘I’ve got a faster computer.’”