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By: Ben Baldwin
October 19, 2022
Digital Thread vs. Digital Twin: Which do you need most?
While digital thread and digital twin technologies can be a strong foundation for digital transformation, there are some major differences between them. As your company grows and adopts more advanced technology and practices, knowing the differences between the two technologies empowers you to drive the best digital and physical outcomes for your business.
The digital thread enables businesses to centralize their data into one standardized hub, providing all manufacturing elements with access to the same data.
On the other hand, a digital twin takes data and creates a virtual copy of the desired products, environments, and processes. This twin generates data that is used to design, build and operate the product with optimal quality in mind.
Understanding the differences and commonalities between these two advanced technologies is fundamental to how you pursue the digital transformation and growth of your business.
Despite digital thread and digital twin technology being strong foundations for digital transformation, each has a specific set of benefits they offer the industry.
We’ll go over these benefits in greater detail below but the main difference between their benefits is a matter of scale. Digital twin technology is concerned with capturing data from a single source while a digital thread is about collecting data from various sources. While digital twin technology connects to other twins and creates comprehensive digital environments, its purpose is limited to a specific digital space.
On the other hand, the digital thread is essentially limitless in scale as it connects to almost any other manufacturing system, including digital twin technology.
Despite the differences in scale, both have incredible capabilities that make them a subject of comparison in the industry.
To see how each works in its own right, let’s dive deep into each technology and ascertain how your production can benefit from either digital twin or digital thread technology.
If you could create a digital world that mimicked the real one to the finest detail, what would you do with it?
You would have an unlimited landscape to build, play, and test anything you desired before it arrived on the production floor. Any successes would be applied in the real world with reliable results, preventing costly re-design of products, asset issues, and inefficient operations layouts.
This is the power of digital twin technology.
A digital copy is made of a device, environment, or process to facilitate operational-oriented design, better manufacturing, and real-time data retrieval and insight.
Surprisingly, the concept of a digital twin has been around since the 1970s, although at that point in time, it wasn’t digital yet. It was instead called Pairing Technology.
During the Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970, the spacecraft suffered the loss of its oxygen tanks. NASA ground control needed a way to restore oxygen to the crew so they could arrive home safely.
But how could they solve the issue without physically working on the spacecraft? How could they even ascertain the cause of the malfunction?
This problem sparked NASA engineers to use a physical twin of the spaceship to mimic the one being flown by the Apollo 13 crew. Through this innovative use of the physical twin, NASA was able to repair the ship and bring the astronauts home safely.
Progressively since 1970, the use of physical and digital twin technology has grown to become a powerful force for a wide variety of industries such as aerospace, fabrication, power, and automotive.
Through the use of digital renderings and real-time data captured by IoT devices, companies use digital twins to drive the best business outcomes through three phases of a product’s lifecycle.
Design: Within the design phase, engineers can combine real-life elements (materials and components) with virtual elements (software) and test them in a complex digital environment. Instead of creating physical prototypes, digital twin technology can be used to design, test, and improve before any money is spent on assembly or real-life fabrication.
Build: Once the design phase is secured, the product can be manufactured. Using a digital twin of the production environment, manufacturers can ensure that the proper tolerances and stresses are applied to the components and product. If a component is fabricated incorrectly in the physical world, it will be reflected in the digital twin, making it easy for businesses to track their production practices, remove defective parts, find root causes, and achieve better manufacturing.
Operation: As the product is being used, a digital twin is created to track the efficiency, wear and tear, and/or any malfunctions of the product or process. If there is a problem with a machine, the digital twin will be able to perform early risk assessments and notify maintenance crews quickly, leading to predictive maintenance rather than preventative maintenance.
Pro Tip: Did you know that you can create a digital rendering of your processes with digital work instructions? Use VKS to design, build, and implement standardized instructions while also collecting data from every worker action in real time..
Digital twin technology is made possible through the use of IoT sensors and connected systems. IoT sensors relay data to the digital twin which mimics all physical attributes of the real world, including temperature, energy consumption, part alignment, and much more.
Once the digital twin is created, the system constantly evaluates the actions of the device and finds opportunities for improvement. Often, if set up to perform actions autonomously, digital twin technology can enact solutions with no human involvement.
Digital twin technology achieves this level of insight and intelligence with IoT through a simple set of actions.
See: First, through the use of IoT sensors, digital twin technology gives a complete view of the machine, environment, or process. Through the use of a computer screen or augmented reality glasses, workers can see the digital rendering of the machine overlaid on the real-life machine, enabling an in-depth view into both environments at once.
Think: Second, using the vast amounts of data collected by the IoT sensors, the digital twin calculates the most effective solutions and opportunities for improvement.
Do: Third, the technology executes the appropriate actions either autonomously or with direction from personnel.
For instance, let's say you have a process that is powered by IoT and digital twin technology. As workers are performing their tasks and responsibilities with their machines and connected devices, the system tracks every action within the processes: inventory usage, quality data, and more.
If there is a problem within the process, the digital twin technology isolates and provides feasible solutions to either the worker or the appropriate leaders.
Once corrective actions have been chosen, the system enacts the solution by directing both workers and IoT devices with the appropriate actions.
For example, imagine you have a turbine motor that converts the flow of water into electricity (hydroelectric power). Your turbine motor possesses various IoT sensors that gather data from the device and then create a digital rendering of the turbine.
This digital rendering is programmed to behave in the same way the real one does while also giving you control over the events and the environment. The IoT-connected turbine uses the collected data to catch issues before they happen and then uses digital renderings of test scenarios to calculate and find the best solutions.
Your turbine motor is suffering some slight damage that will decrease the product's lifetime by more than 25%.
Instead of requiring a maintenance worker to physically work in the machine, causing downtime, a solution can be applied remotely.
The digital twin suggests that the cause is the increase in the number of start-stops experienced each day and suggests mitigating damage by slowing down the ramp-up time and installing a new start-up procedure. After reviewing the data, you give the go-ahead and the digital twin solves the issue without ever taking the machine out of service.
This advanced machine learning and insight is exponentially increased with every additional turbine connected to the digital twin. The technology gathers and compiles data from each turbine to gain an even more in-depth view of the environment and hydroelectric operation.
Now, what if we could take the data from a digital twin and other sources to centralize the information in a structured communication framework? Every production silo and company department would have access to the same information, greatly empowering interdepartmental collaboration.
Best of all, because the data is centralized and woven into one communication framework or digital thread, the data is reliably more accurate than if you were depending on individual departments to share their unique information. Adding to this, often different departments will have differentiated ways of sorting, viewing, and analyzing data, which does not make information easy to share or extrapolate.
Instead of the traditional siloed approach to company departments like warehousing and manufacturing, digital thread technology weaves a centralized data flow throughout all departments.
For example, as manufacturing execution systems like VKS guides workers through their tasks, completed quantities and productivity data is shared with inventory programs like an MRP, management programs like an ERP, and/or BI software for analysis.
Primarily, creating a strong digital thread is dependent on an API (application programming interface). The API enables a series of programs to connect and collaborate through a common programming language.
Pro Tip: Think of an API as a waiter in a restaurant. The waiter is the critical link between you and the kitchen. Similarly, APIs carry information back and forth between systems, enabling programs to communicate and collaborate..
Manufacturers often have several systems that they use daily. There are ERPs that track the performance of the operation, BI software that provides advanced analytics tools and work instruction software that standardizes practices and elevates the capabilities of the worker.
To maintain a smart manufacturing system, you need these systems to collaborate. One could argue that it would be better for companies to invest in one system that does it all. This would surely make collaboration and centralized data easier, right?
Well, not exactly.
Each software is built for a specific purpose, and for SAAS-based systems, continuous improvement and constant innovation ensure that you are getting the best tools for every job instead of replacing your proverbial toolbox with one swiss army knife.
In light of this, companies are opting for multiple systems and then weaving a strong digital thread throughout their operations and systems via a series of APIs. This connection between systems further enhances the capabilities of the other systems and the workers on the shop floor.
Did you know that VKS banded together with other manufacturing software companies to show the real-life capabilities of an interwoven and layered digital thread? At the IMTS 2022 tradeshow, VKS teamed up with Machine Metrics, MaintainX, Universal Robots, and other companies to showcase the capabilities of a connected factory and digital thread technology like VKS.
Based on the intelligent capabilities of both digital thread and digital twin technologies, it is difficult to answer this question responsibly. Although, we can break the decision into two camps:
Highly repetitive machine processes: If your operation is highly dependent on machinery performing repetitive tasks, digital twin technology may be the best logical step toward digital transformation and advanced insight.
Mixed-model processes: If your operation is highly dependent on people with lots of differentiating factors, then digital thread technology may be the most beneficial to digitally transforming and unifying your business.
Despite all the differences between digital thread and digital twin technology, the two work extremely well together, leading many manufacturers to implement both systems into their operations. Digital twins of processes, devices, and environments gather large swaths of data that are shared within the organization through an advanced digital thread. This advanced insight and flow of knowledge greatly increase the capabilities of any business.
Are you curious about integrating digital twin and digital thread technology into your operation? Book a demo with one of our dedicated team members and learn how work instruction software elevates the capabilities of your digital processes, physical assets, and people on the shop floor.
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