Optimizing supply chains with digital twins
It’s not uncommon to hear overwhelmed coworkers wishing in vain that they had a clone in order to get all their work done in time. Of course, even if we were able to clone humans, there would be serious bioethical questions to be addressed before such a thing were ever attempted. In the supply chain, however, a digital twin functions as a virtual clone of important products and processes in order to streamline logistics, anticipate problems, and develop new strategies.
What Is a Digital Twin?
Taking full advantage of the Internet of Things and the abundance of sensors on machines and in warehouses, a digital twin is created by gathering real-world data and creating an accurate representation of vital parts of the supply chain in the digital domain. The technology dates to the Space Race in the mid-20th century when NASA developed technology that would allow the agency to monitor vehicles and equipment that were well out of its reach.
Today, digital twin technology is used by companies in nearly every industry. Ganesh Bell, chief digital officer of GE Power & Water, explained the importance of digital twins at his company to Forbes, “For every physical asset in the world, we have a virtual copy running in the cloud that gets richer with every second of operational data.” As digital twins in the supply chain continue to operate, they become even more useful as they acquire more data from every link in the chain.
Far more advanced than CAD (computer-aided design) models and other simulations, a digital twin provides real-time information and situational awareness combined with the ability to anticipate breakdowns in machines and delays in shipping. Due to such usefulness, Gartner, Inc. predicts that “by 2021, half of large industrial companies will use digital twins, resulting in those organizations gaining a 10 percent improvement in effectiveness.”
The Digital Supply Chain Twin
In some sectors, the adoption of digital twins and smart buildings has been held back because of cost and an inability to see ROI, however in the supply chain it is much easier to see how investing in the technology can yield dividends. The success of any supply chain is determined by efficiency, every link of the chain must be functioning at an optimal level to ensure that the end product is delivered on time.
A digital supply chain twin that is fed quality data can connect the digital world to the physical world with astounding results. Hala Zeine, SAP’s President of Supply Chain, delivered the keynote speech at the 2018 ASUG Experience Supply Chain and Procurement conference, saying in part, “The future of the supply chain is somewhere where the digital world and the physical world are entangled. It’s where you can simulate in one and execute in another.”
A successful digital supply chain twin can run numerous simulations, anticipating the impact of everything from a natural disaster to a malfunctioning machine. Companies can then develop strategies and emergency plans to deal with disruptions that could otherwise derail a business. Additionally, running repetitive simulations can predict when machines are likely to breakdown or need repairs and manufacturers can take preventive measures and have backups ready to limit the impact of such an occurrence.
Digital Twin Solutions
As more companies are becoming aware of the advantages of creating a digital twin for the supply chain, tech companies are stepping up to meet the demand. Microsoft’s Azure, SpheraCloud™, and AspenTech offer cloud-based services that assist in risk management and operational excellence by providing a holistic view of the supply chain. Such platforms allow companies’ assets to run more safely and longer while consuming less energy.
Despite its promise there are still a few obstacles for digital twins to overcome before becoming standard in large supply chains. One is that it requires all parts of the chain to agree to having their data monitored and shared, something that can only be done in a chain where trust has been established.
All new technology takes some time to be adopted, whether it’s because of humans being slow to adapt to change and fully accept something new or the ability of the technology to be scaled to the point where it can handle the amount of data required to succeed. Digital supply chain twin technology is no exception, however its rapid emergence suggests that it will be a major factor in global business before long.