​Internet of Things projects: Why your business needs to build a digital double

A virtual version of physical assets and processes could help businesses become more efficient.

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Building a 'digital twin' of their physical assets, processes, and operations could allow companies to optimise their systems and cut their operating expenses by running more efficiently.

According to analysts Gartner, a 'digital twin' is a digital representation of a physical object which also includes data from the object and the ability to monitor it. This gives businesses the ability to respond faster to changing conditions, particularly for asset optimisation and preventive maintenance.

While the arrival of the Internet of Things is likely to be one factor in increasing adoption of digital twins, the analyst argues the concept doesn't just apply to manufacturing and says CIOs can apply the concept to people, things, and places to complex environments, such as buildings, factories, or even cities.

Digital twins are going to transform how businesses operate and how they serve their customers, predicts Akash Khurana, CIO and CDO at engineering specialist McDermott International.

"The creation of a digital twin is an absolutely crucial consideration for all CIOs," he says. "Go out, talk to your customers and think about how digital transformation can be used to create value for people."

McDermott's digital twin is a computer model of the oil and gas platform facilities provided to its clients after installation. The aim is to improve the efficiency of future operations and maintenance activities.

Defining the concept

Gartner predicts that half of large industrial companies will use digital twins by 2021 to improve effectiveness. Khurana recognises the concept will resonate with CIOs in some businesses more than others. "Every sector is slightly different -- there is a no cookie cutter approach," he says.

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"You must gauge the activities of a company within a specific industry," he says. "The level of maturity matters and you need to have an honest discussion about your current position and your long-term aims. You need to understand and articulate the steps you will need to take to progress along that maturity curve."

Gartner also suggests CIOs will need to work with business leaders to develop economic models to drive value from digital twins. These models will need to consider the benefits of the approach in relation to development and ongoing maintenance requirements and costs.

Khurana agrees: "Many times, I've sat with functional leads and looked at the value chain across the business. We embed technologies and think about how they can be used to change our operations for the better."

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Khurana, who is working with technology company Alfresco to deliver open and connected systems, says a whole range of technologies -- from artificial intelligence to machine learning -- will be used to inform his firm's development of its digital twin. The aim is to use these advances so clients will be provided with a computer model of the facilities created by McDermott.

"We're hoping to have a digital twin that we provide at a handover to our customers," says Khurana. "In addition to what our clients get as project completion data, they'll also be able to see the virtual design twin. We are intending to use that twin to monitor how the operations are being run."

Creating a digital twin

While the objective is impressive, McDermott's digital twin project is far from complete. Khurana refers to the initiative as a "journey". The firm is still in the process of building the twin. "It's not a strategic approach that is fully baked yet," he says.

However, Khurana says it is also important to understand the potential impact of the digital twin. McDermott executives believe the approach will be critical to optimising the firm's end-to-end processes.

The digital twin comes in two layers. The first layer, which is focused on design, is where the firm captures information on every aspect of its facilities. Khurana says this layer is a crucial platform, where modifications and changes are updated. "You have to make sure that you have a robust and complete footprint of the design," he says.

The second layer focuses on operations. Here, data from operational assets is brought in and combined with key enterprise applications. Khurana says this foundational process allows his firm to start creating insights into business processes.

"That's where you need to start ensuring your assets are connected in a secure way and they're sending the right kind of data," he says. "You have to weed out the noise and go after the parameters that develop your capabilities and which drive change internally."

Putting the approach into action

The project might be a work in progress but the aims are significant. Khurana envisages a potential 15 per cent boost to operational margins by using the design twin approach. He gives the example of predictive maintenance and the opportunity to know a bearing in a pump is set to fail in six months.

McDermott will benefit from this foresight because the firm will have already captured data from pumps across its facilities and it will know from machine learning when pumps are about to fail. "It means you don't have to wait to maintain your equipment - you can be proactive," he says.

Khurana envisages a situation where the firm is then able to commission autonomous agents to procure parts through enterprise systems, call on internal expertise and bring the tools together to help execute the maintenance on-site, either with workers or through robots. "That's the true value of the digital twin approach - that's what removes any cynicism about the potential impact of digital change," says Khurana.

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He expects this strategy to be used across maintenance, engineering and production optimisation - and he wants developers to help extend the platform. Khurana says another example of the twin might be in helping the firm manage the handover process from engineering to fabrication during a complex 12 to 18-month project.

"The changes in our industry are ongoing - you don't lock in the design of a product at a certain stage,' he says. "A digital twin allows us to look at the design process holistically and, as we execute on our plan, we can see the implications of the changes made to the overall project."

Khurana says the platform will help the business deliver its engineering projects in a standardised fashion. The aim is that McDermott can use the digital twin across a range of use cases and help generate even greater efficiencies.

"We want to make the approach part of the fabric of our products - it's the future for us," says Khurana. "You must dissect carefully what goes into the twin. That means you should do more than work to a buzz phrase and simply create a digital twin of a physical asset. You must understand the purpose."

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