In the early days, system architecting was irrelevant. System development was merely a mechanical challenge, with camshafts dictating the motions in the machine. Then electronics took over, followed by software to boost intelligence even further. Suddenly, we could build smarter and more complex systems. On the downside, though, architects experienced a certain pillarization in their development teams: mechanical engineers vs. electrical specialists vs. software designers. Arguably, the biggest obstacle was that the latter of the three was always late to the party. They simply couldn’t start writing code before the base of the machine had actually been built. Although a lot has improved in recent years, it’s clear that there is still much to be gained.
The life of system architects can be hard. The advanced machines they want to build are getting more complex by the day. So complex, in fact, that it is almost impossible to keep an overview. Too many intertwining details make them lose their grip on the requirements. To make matters worse, they have fewer resources at hand, both in terms of people and money, and their bosses keep pressing them hard to raise the quality of the end product.
Another challenge is the architect’s wish for an agile design flow, with the short iteration cycles they see at the software department. Wouldn’t it be great to watch the whole system improve every few weeks and show the progress to the customer? For that, they want virtual steel to build up their system, with virtual actuators and sensors, as well as a virtual platform to test the software. The architects – and the rest of the industry – have an ever-growing need for this, but the traditional tooling is lagging.
Break down the pillars
The logical next step in system development – that also answers to the above-mentioned challenges – is prototyping by using Digital Twins. You have probably already heard the over-hyped stories, promising you the moon when you use the technology. But let me tone it down a little because digital twinning is no revolution; it’s just an evolution from what used to be called virtual prototyping. For years companies have already been using FEM analysis or computational fluid dynamics to simulate their designs, but always on the component level. This is very helpful, but the real challenge is in combining all components and simulating the whole machine. That means linking the tools each development pillar is using, which can be a real Babylonian confusion of tongues.
A digital twin breaks down the pillars and unlocks the possibility of mixing various blood types. Prespective, our real-time simulation tool has the ability to tap into all of the data models and sources that the different specialists are creating. It understands CAD models drawn in, for instance, Autodesk, Dassault or Siemens software. It accepts physical models made with tools such as Comsol, Matlab or Wolfram. The best part is that even the real embedded software runs on the digital twin created in Prespective, as it reacts precisely the same as the real system would.
With Prespective, designers with different backgrounds can create a common model so they can easily communicate with each other. By eliminating the need for a complete restructuring of the development process, they have a virtual product they can work on in parallel, allowing them to create prototypes both fast and cheap. Just as easily, they can use it in their own department to virtually verify the assumptions they made in their model. And if they want, they can already start the basic iteration after the first design brainstorm.
Digital twin tools come in two flavors. Major companies offer solutions, but these have the potential disadvantage of vendor lock-in. Although the brands claim to be open, these tools don’t operate very well with third-party software. This is particularly impractical, as the different development pillars generally don’t work with matching tools.
Next to the digital twin software from juggernauts, several speedboats are taking the industry by storm. Smaller contestants that are dedicated, adapt more quickly and are completely open. And, small certainly doesn’t mean weak. When we started our journey about seven years ago, we faced the dilemma of developing an engine ourselves or using a strong existing base. It was a no-brainer that a dedicated development team of at least a hundred engineers was out of our league. That’s why we opted to build our Prespective platform on Unity3D – the biggest gaming engine in the world. Every day more than two thousand engineers are improving, updating and finetuning this engine. Not even Siemens can say that it has so many dedicated developers. One of the biggest benefits of using a gaming engine is that this engine offers real-time 3D physics, which makes it far more powerful than regular CAD software.
Our digital twin platform is truly open. Not only does it accept input from a wide range of sources, but engineers also have access to the engine. By making modifications in Unity3D, designers can get a lot of help overcoming the hurdles they encounter when trying to solve very complex physical problems.
Let me emphasize again: digital twinning doesn’t have to disturb your current process. You don’t have to do it completely differently. The whole idea is to help system architects regain the control and overview they need.
Digital twinning is a new way of prototyping. It’s a new layer on top of your existing models, extending your possibilities. I estimate from real life experiences that you can develop 25 percent faster with real-time simulation software like Prespective, all with less cost, fewer mistakes, smaller teams, fewer physical prototypes and fewer issues after commissioning. By providing insight into the requirements, you will drastically improve the communication with your (first tier) suppliers and, above all, with your customers. A digital twin allows you to build complex systems that otherwise simply would be out of reach.
About the author: Guido van Gageldonk is co-founder & CTO of Unit040, a visualisation and simulation software company from the Netherlands. He founded the company in 2006 while still being a student at the Technical University in Eindhoven. He is a renowned tech watcher in the Netherlands and is well known for his ground breaking ideas regarding Digital Twin Technology.