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Home>IIot & Smart Technology>Industry 4.0>Digital twins: How sensor data keeps it 'real'

Digital twins: How sensor data keeps it 'real'

10 September 2020

As the practice of digital twinning becomes mainstream, sensors have become intelligent tools in the management of engineering and business processes. So, what does this ‘new normal’ mean for every-day sensor users, as well as for machine designers? Neil Sandhu talks us through the opportunities.

IMAGINE you could create an exact digital copy of yourself…  You could test out new looks, check out the health of your own organs, even speed up the ageing process to see how your body might start to fail in the future, and test out ways to prevent problems. Terrifying as the prospect might be, especially to the more squeamish or vain amongst us, just think how opening up a window into a virtual world might offer almost limitless opportunities, not only to create a better ‘you’, but also to improve medical techniques and train health professionals.  

The same concept of creating a digital twin rings true for engineers, whether for a new product design, a machine, a process, a whole factory, or even the entire supply chain. The windows into these worlds are sensors; they connect the physical with the virtual. With the right systems in place to visualise and route the data effectively, sensor data can be used, horizontally, to track the progress and efficiency of processes and, vertically, to drill down into the health of the operating assets, from the cloud right into heart of a machine.

For users, machine designers, and indeed for manufacturers like SICK, the role of sensors is being rapidly redefined. Sensor technology has matured far beyond its ability to detect, measure, identify or safeguard. Sensors have become intelligent and programmable tools for enterprise-wide business improvement.

Sensor technology has matured far beyond its ability to detect, measure, identify or safeguard

Our customers no longer just ask us to help them solve classic automation problems to do with engineering sensors, actuators and logic. They want to know: how do I make the most of all this data that the sensor has gathered?  How do I best use it to make my product, machine or process more available, responsive and efficient?
On the factory floor, manufacturers are looking for ways to adopt Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to create a digitally-connected virtual representation of their operations. How can the condition of machinery be monitored in the cloud to recognise if a motor is running too hot; if a belt drive is vibrating too much, if a quality inspection system is generating too many rejects, or simply to know when its time to replace a component before it becomes worn and fails?

Integration space

In response to this rapid coming-of-age of digital technology for sensors, SICK launched its IntegrationSpace concept earlier this year, a home for a range of web-based services for gathering, visualising and managing sensor data in a virtual ‘world’. 

Aided by dashboard-based tools, users gain insights into the operating health and service status of their devices and achieve the transparency necessary to maintain automated systems with maximum uptime and minimum device inventories. Data can be directed seamlessly to provide real time analytics, while being recorded and integrated into predictive and prescriptive maintenance systems.

3D Model?

Already, most people recognise the concept of a digital twin that begins with building a 3D model of a facility, usually in a CAD program, and bringing it to ‘life’ by superimposing real-time sensor data that can be interpreted through visual dashboards, charts and alerts.

The danger with starting with a 3D model is that it could easily become a pet project for senior operations or enterprise management, rather than a valuable tool in the hands of engineers and operators. Yet, much of the data generated by, and about sensors, is of most use to those on the front line, looking after the assets day by day.

At your fingertips

A step by step approach to adoption, on the other hand, puts valuable information at the fingertips of engineers, while still generating data for use in operations-wide or enterprise-level management tools. SICK favours a modular process that enables you to start from the identification and knowledge of every asset, through a scalable asset management system, right through to the live pairing of the sensor with the cloud.

So, you can choose to start simply, just by using a smartphone App to create a virtual representation – a digital twin in the simplest sense – of each of your devices. Simply tag the 2D code label and begin to collect data on your entire installed sensor inventory. The App, called the Installed Base Manager, automatically detects and logs the serial number and age of the device, assigns it to the machine and plant, and provides an option to add photos and the exact GPS location. You can add non-SICK devices, too. Authorised employees can interrogate and update the Installed Base and add new devices at any time.

Having created a digital twin of your real device, you have the beginnings of an asset management system that can then be viewed and managed in the cloud. The SICK Asset Hub is our foundation web service that is vendor-independent and modular and enables any type of asset to be mapped.

Data can be evaluated so that maintenance happens at the right time

Data can be evaluated so that maintenance happens at the right time, software and firmware are up to date, and that inventories are well planned and optimised.  Additional data and documents can be easily stored and retrieved for any asset. You can navigate via a tree structure of your functional locations to view a broad range of asset-related information and documents along the life cycle. 

With a virtual representation (digital twin) of your real device, using the Live Connect module you can pair your real device with its virtual representation to achieve secure, live data transmission between the sensor and the cloud. You can manage the routing and forwarding of data to other applications or third party dashboards.
Using Live Connect, a secure, standardised and easy-to-use live data connection is achieved from each sensor into the Asset Hub, via an edge gateway device.  Not only can the sensor status be visual in the cloud, but live process data can be integrated into monitoring applications. 

The Monitoring Box is a module focused on continuous status monitoring for sensors and machines. It enables the early detection of status changes with configurable alarms that can even be set up on mobile devices. Implemented either at a customer’s premises or in the SICK cloud, any significant changes to the device status can be visualised so that operators can take timely action. There’s also a log book to clearly record, visualise and document events.

No data goes to waste

There was a time when sensors were little more than simple switches taking their place in PLC-driven processes. Many still do this job very well, but we have an opportunity not only to harness additional information from the sensor that previously might have gone to waste, but to exploit it in cloud-level systems and processes.  Whether you want a simple asset tracking system, or a virtual representation of your whole factory, sensor data is becoming a valuable raw material, that can help ensure the availability and productivity of critical machine components. Why not “Keep it real” and start a step by step journey towards digital twinning today?

Key Points

  • Sensors have become intelligent and programmable tools for enterprise-wide business improvement
  • With the right systems in place, sensor data can be used to track the progress and efficiency of processes
  • It can also be used to drill down into the health of the operating assets, from the cloud right into heart of a machine.

Neil Sandhu is SICK UK product manager