Digital twins and design innovation

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Thomas Leurent on creating an innovation step-change through structural digital twins

For engineers and manufacturers, adapting and improving their product line is an unending task. But eventually, simply tweaking an existing product to tease out another few drops of efficiency isn’t enough. Sometimes, because of technological advancements or changes in consumer demand, it is necessary to scrap everything and start from scratch. For instance, most of the basic digital services we take for granted today would not have been possible if we had continued with dial-up modem infrastructure. Switching to broadband was a step-change in our digital capabilities and has unlocked a tidal wave of innovation.
For the most part, we haven’t seen the same level of innovation in mechanical and structural engineering. Part of the problem is, when it comes to large assets such as planes or wind turbines, the health and safety consequences of wiping the slate clean can be enormous. Designing a new aeroplane or wind farm from the ground up is a monumental task. Yet as SpaceX demonstrates, embracing new methods and designs can create huge opportunities. For engineers to manage it effectively, they need accurate data, first class modelling capabilities, and an overview of the full lifecycle of current assets so they see how changes in the design will impact performance and operational life. This is why the future of design will depend on next-generation digital twins with full lifecycle management capabilities.

A clean design

Tweaking an existing product is often significantly easier and cheaper for companies. However, the problem comes when companies end up tweaking a product line long enough that engineers then have to build around outdated features. When Boeing introduced a low-to-the-ground design for its 737-100 in 1968, it was beneficial but, as technology moved on, it became an increasingly problematic design aspect that engineers had to compensate for.

Continually modernising the 737, rather than starting afresh with a clean design, is part of the reason why the company ended up having to halt delivery of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft last year after the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to ground the aircraft. In contrast, by ditching the single-use model for rocket design and prioritising reusability, SpaceX has realistic ambitions to reduce the cost of reaching Earth orbit by a hundredfold. Currently, no other firm can match SpaceX prices, yet Musk is predicting further cost efficiencies while continuing to improve performance.

The limits of innovation

Yet starting afresh is also tricky due to the lack of data of how a new design will perform. For example, if an offshore wind farm operator wanted to revamp the type of turbine they use, they are immediately faced with a host of problems, including how the balance of the blades would be affected, or whether joints will be placed under unexpected stress levels and suffer from excessive fatigue.
This fear of the unknown is driving many asset manufacturers to continue on an incremental innovation path with enormous over-engineering – especially because high costs and long duration of physical tests typically allows firms to conduct only a few design iterations. Addressing the problem requires the deployment of next-generation digital twins that are used throughout the entire lifecycle of assets, from design and fabrication, to operations, to life extension, and finally decommissioning. This enables efficient, lean designs to be implemented, with the knowledge that the digital twin will be used to monitor the asset during operations to pre-emptively identify any issues to avoid failures and downtime. Crucially, the insights gleaned from each digital twin are fed into the next generation of designs, enabling further improvements and optimisations. 

Simulating the future

Having a full-scale digital twin enables engineers to model potential changes to an asset’s structure and design, complete with insights into the consequences of those changes. For example, considering the environmental issues that have been caused by wind turbine blades once they’ve reached their end-of-life, manufacturers are looking at alternative materials compatible with the circular economy.

However, there is a problem, in that there isn’t enough real-world failure data from large turbines for engineers to develop effective, streamlined prototypes. This tends to lead to overly conservative designs, when the exact opposite is required. The solution is the simulation capabilities of next generation digital twins which, because of their full life-cycle management capabilities, can link operations and design in new ways, dramatically speeding up the Return on Experience (REX) for engineers, allowing them to go from a single prototype to the mass deployment of thousands of units within a few short years.

Through the digital twin, engineers can gather data from assets in operation and use it to unlock new possibilities, such as leaner designs with adjusted safety margins based on sensor feedback. Engineers can review how these changes affect performance, efficiency, and lifespan of both the new blades and the asset as a whole, as operations and design become a mutually reinforcing virtuous circle. For example, due to a lack of data around fatigue for turbine shafts, many designs have been overly conservative and can be re-engineered to reduce weight and costs. This in turn will affect the stress and fatigue life of other sections of the turbine and supporting structure – all of which will be visible on the digital twin simulation, allowing engineers to reduce cost at the system level.

Crucially, having a physics-based digital twin enables engineers to operate assets, simulate changes, and experiment with breakthrough designs and revolutionary technologies at scale, with the same level of certainty as they have now for incremental improvements and tweaks. By giving engineers the confidence to be bolder and more innovative with the design of their assets is the key to creating large-scale physical assets fit for the digital era, like the new Airbus SE ZEROe hydrogen-powered plane.

The next generation of design

Ultimately, every design has physical limits. As the Boeing example illustrates, features which are initially extremely helpful can, over time, become increasingly problematic. Yet we still have engineers spending time on out-of-date designs, trying to squeeze out the last few efficiency gains, when they should be scrapping them and starting afresh.

Having digital twins operating throughout the entire asset life-cycle from design, to operations, life extension, and ultimately decommissioning offers engineers the ability to create leaner, more efficient designs while also increasing confidence in the performance and lifespan of the asset. We have to unlock the same tidal wave of physical engineering innovation that we’ve seen in the software world over the past few decades, and next-generation digital twins are the secret sauce that can offer reliable, real-time data to underpin this transformation, bringing everything from energy to transport into the 21st Century.

Thomas Leurent is CEO at Akselos

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