The tech is moving beyond manufacturing, improving workflow processes in consulting and immersive simulations.
By Russ Banham
Digital twin technology has moved from the manufacturing plant into the enterprise itself, helping companies as diverse as Big Pharma and consulting firms enhance the efficiency of a range of business processes, maximizing productivity and profits.
Take EY, for instance. The large audit and advisory firm is developing digital twins for every work process across the enterprise, which is not an easy task given the sheer breadth and scope of EY’s activities. “We have more than 300,000 people working the equivalent of 2.7 million hours each day in the 150 countries where we operate,” says Nicola Morini Bianzino, EY’s CTO.
Each employee is engaged in a set of physical work processes using their computerized devices each day, their collective interactions traveling on the firm’s network and systems. By creating digital twins of the work processes, friction points in workflows are identified to increase process efficiency and work productivity.
“By combining IoT, visualization and real-time data from across the workforce, we’re able to capture detailed information on what people were accomplishing during work hours,” Bianzino says. “We can then unleash machine learning (ML) technology to understand the correlations between what they did and actually produced to hopefully optimize the work process.”
EY is well along in developing these so-called process twins across the enterprise, he says. “We’re not there completely yet, but we’ve made significant progress capturing those 2.7 million hours of work,” says Bianzino. “We’re able to see how people twist a process to get to an answer and, now that we have this data, we can adjust and improve each process as we go. Ultimately, we will capture the knowledge stored in people’s brains of how work is performed, with the system becoming more intelligent than the sum of the parts.”
Process twins are this century’s humane version of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “principles of scientific management.” The mechanical engineer’s methods to improve work efficiency in the early 1900s involved calculating the time it took for each worker to physically complete a task. By analyzing these workflows, unnecessary movements were identified and eliminated.
“By having this digital representation of something in a virtual environment, whether it’s a machine or a process, you can make changes to improve that something,” says Guido Vetter, a partner at management consulting firm Bain & Company whose expertise is in advanced analytics and AI. “You’re able to obtain a complete digital picture of the physical efforts.”
The real-time availability of the information provided by the digital twin offers actionable insights. “A maker of mining equipment can learn how a conveyor belt is operating, and a sales organization can learn if the digital sales process is flagging,” Vetter says. “The return on the investment in digital twin technology is the optimization of the physical piece of equipment or a process.”
Process enhancement was in scope at another Big Four audit and advisory firm. At KPMG, Chris Corteen, director of an incubator that designs digital twins and metaverse concepts, full-scale digital replicas of facilities have been developed for employee onboarding and training purposes and for law enforcement and disaster recovery services professionals to enter and exit premises during a natural or human-caused catastrophe.
Corteen says the building of a digital twin for onboarding and training processes mimics real-world human-to-human experiences, albeit in a remote environment presenting the opportunity to attain significant efficiency and cost savings.
“We’re able to make a digital twin of a facility and related process flows to do live onboarding and training in a metaverse space, where a member of the staff in San Francisco, for example, can take a new employee through remote training and onboarding in New Jersey,” he says. “Not only do you eliminate the expenses associated with travel and lodging, the employee’s stress and fatigue in trekking across the country are alleviated.”
He adds that most people are more comfortable learning in an immersive digital environment compared to traditional video training in an unfamiliar physical environment. “Our studies suggest a 35% improvement in information retention because of the immersive experience, as opposed to a training video where people don’t pay 100% attention to the screen; inside a digital twin, they are by default a captive audience.”
Speeding up drug development
Much like the process optimization underway at EY, Siemens is creating a digital twin of each process involved in pharmaceutical giant GSK’s multi-phase vaccine development. The twins evaluate the performance of each process in real time. If a deviation occurs in a process, the digital twin not only anticipates it, it uses ML algorithms to steer control back to optimal production.
“The data obtained from real [production] runs is fed back with ML into the `brain’ of the digital twin, thus helping to optimize both the digital twin and the products and processes from an early stage,” says Andrew Whytock, head of digitalization and innovation pharma at Siemens, which is collaborating with IT consulting firm ATOS in the development of a digital twin of GSK’s manufacturing processes. “That allows vaccines to be developed faster and always be produced with the best information available.”
Down the line, digital twins are expected to become an important family member in the future metaverse of immersive virtual experiences. “The next generation of digital twins is what we call `unlimited reality,’” says Frances Wu, practice leader of the unlimited reality team at consultancy Deloitte.
“Digital twins are the underpinning methodology to create immersive simulations of processes occurring on the factory floor or in a hospital operating room,” Wu says. “By combining this digital replica of the physical environment with 3D visualization, and democratizing the use of this technology, users instantly find what they’re looking for. The information is right there, enabling better decisions faster.”
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and best-selling author.