I was recently flipping channels and came across the classic scene in “Apollo 13” when NASA ground engineers create a replica of a system of parts currently in outer space to save the astronauts from carbon dioxide poisoning. To do so, these scientists must, quite literally, figure out how to fit a square peg in a round hole. (Apparently, the shape of the only air filters on board were square, while the lunar module’s air filtration component was round.)
By using only the precise physical components that the astronauts had available to them, the NASA ground team engineers construct an exact prototype of what the astronauts then build themselves in order to filter the carbon dioxide. In the end, this resourceful solution shaped a rescue mission that ultimately saved the crew’s lives.
It’s true that there was nothing particularly digital about this endeavor, but the innovation of mirrored systems that can safely be tested on earth in order to solve a problem hundreds of thousands of miles away was a clear precursor to current digital twin technology. These tools — which are explored in the current APICS magazine cover story, “Virtual Manufacturing Enhances Reality” — are digital replicas that enable real-time monitoring and analysis of assets in order to prevent problems and simulate future business opportunities.
As I discovered while interviewing subject-matter experts for the article, more and more companies and supply chains are taking advantage of the versatility and benefits of digital twins. However, I learned from Dan Gamota, vice president of digital engineering services at Jabil, that there are some obstacles to overcome. As with any implementation project, success and sustainability require cross-functional collaboration and engaging key stakeholders from the start. This can best be accomplished by involving them in the process of identifying the value proposition.
“At the highest level, people typically understand that the purpose of the project is to mitigate risk,” he explained. “What’s less obvious, though, is the ability to utilize a digital twin to streamline and improve overall digital product life cycle management; increase product ideation-to-realization speed; enhance manufacturing flow agility and robustness; improve product performance; and expand product personalization, functionality and customization.”
To ensure everyone appreciates the multifaceted promise of digital twins, Gamota also recommended driving awareness with a clear focus on the technology’s ability to deliver disciplined predictability and visibility across global supply chains.
Because digital twins are living, dynamic software models that are constantly fed information by components and sensors, another potential roadblock to implementation involves collecting, storing, safeguarding and accessing such massive amounts of data. “Ensuring data integrity and security is paramount,” Gamota said. “This requires a deep appreciation for what, where, how and when digital twins will be used to support project assumptions and predictions.”
Finally, the issue of data ownership and confidentiality must be addressed. Here, Gamota added that data-management can carry a large cost burden, so it’s crucial to identify any issues during the discovery phase.
Exploring the possibilities
It’s been nearly a half-century since that oxygen tank ignited on Apollo 13, steering NASA toward its own modelling program, which endures to this day. In fact, according to the Forbes article “What Is Digital Twin Technology — and Why Is It So Important?” NASA continues to use digital twins to develop new recommendations, roadmaps, and next-generation vehicles and aircraft. Author Bernard Marr writes, “How do you operate, maintain or repair systems when you aren’t within physical proximity to them? That was the challenge NASA’s research department had to face.”
I hope you will check out this story in the current issue of the magazine. As you read it, I encourage you to consider the same questions with regards to your own operations. Then, ask yourself how this exciting technology might thrust your supply chain into a voyage beyond the physical.