Digital twin improves plant design and operational performance

While the converging worlds of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) have different interests and requirements, it does open the door to innovative Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions – like digital twins.

By FDT Group March 30, 2022
Courtesy: FDT Group

A digital twin is a virtual copy of something as straightforward as a device or as complex as an entire system. The data, created by sensors, gives users structural and operational views of what happens to the device or system in real-time. It allows them to monitor, model, and adjust the digital twin to see how virtual changes would affect the original device or system before committing to the change in the real world.

While the converging worlds of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) have different interests and requirements, it does open the door to innovative Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions – like digital twins. This technology is revolutionizing a manufacturer’s ability to use integrated IT/OT data to design and employ models that form the basis for increasing overall efficiency, quality, and agility.

Visualizing the factory of the future

Converging IT/OT data in one platform supports visualization of the factory as a whole. This is how IT and OT decision-makers will receive productivity status updates consistently and on time, which enables them to make more accurate business decisions.

Manufacturers looking for IT/OT convergence benefit from a secure, scalable, and adaptable platform that provides embedded configurable end-to-end trusted interoperability supporting cloud, edge, on-premises, or enterprise-wide agile architectures.

The strength of FDT technology in visualization and data analytics enables seamless integration of automation system assets (current installed-based and new solutions), control applications and edge devices throughout the global industrial sector, as well as expanded access to critical operational data. This strength extends to emerging technologies – like digital twin – supporting better decision making, improved data insight and visualization, more modern and consistent workforce training and efficient standard operating procedures.

FDT’s Unified Environment (FDT3) enables multi-purpose digital twins. Because a digital twin represents a real-world object, like a device, it can be used for planning, simulation, commissioning or enabling access to the object. Often a digital twin serves one purpose, but many projects use one digital twin for multiple purposes, like planning and simulation.

FDT brings IT and OT systems and devices together. Because the FDT Server environment encompasses two servers, there are operating benefits and economic (business) benefits for different configurations and simulations of devices or processes. Digital twin drives data analytics and operational insight. The strength of FDT has always been analytics – and now those analytics are even richer, with better device diagnostics and better performance.

For industrial companies seeking proven solutions supporting the convergence of business information and plant operating technologies, the FDT Unified Environment, (also known as the FDT3 standard), with its FDT Server and built-in OPC UA Server solution, enables IT/OT integration and provides a secure gateway to network/device data and health information. The standard offers OPC UA client/server-authenticated access to plant application data, and its utilization of a Publish-Subscribe environment allows for real-time data exchange.

Digital twins depend on the physical and digital factories to be successful. Courtesy: FDT Group

Digital twins depend on the physical and digital factories to be successful. Courtesy: FDT Group

Device type manager (DTMs) provide documents for device types as well as for specific device instances to extend support to other use cases. For instance, it is possible to provide an eCL@ss description for a device type to support detailed engineering or link maintenance documents for a device instance to support lifecycle management. The DTM can serve as a hub to all device-related information.

FDT3 provides an accepted standard for deploying and integrating a digital representation of a device to many platforms. It makes it is possible to integrate a DTM into a web server, which allows remote access to device-related services like monitoring, diagnosis, and parameterization. Also, it is possible to integrate DTMs into an OPC Server, that supports application-level integration – for asset management or for enterprise resource planning (ERP), for example. The OPC Server may support an information model according to the FDT OPC Unified Architecture (UA) information model.

Digital twin environment benefits

Together, the FDT Server with OPC UA gives system providers digital twins for simulation and virtualization of automation systems, I/O systems, and processes.

The main reasons for introducing digital twin technology into a production system is to improve access to information related to the production process and to improve flexibility of the production system. This applies to existing production systems as well as to newly planned production systems.

Originally, the capability was mainly as in-process representation of the device, but with FDT Unified Environment the focus has evolved from an in-application representation of the device to providing a server-based representation of the device. With the FDT environment, it is possible to have one server that provides a package of device-related information and services. The server then can be used to support very different use cases related to the device.

A DTM provides packaged information about all supported device types. Today this typically includes documentation as well as protocol support files. It would be easy to use the DTM to provide files for simulations or for virtual commissioning. If such files are provided via link, the device vendor could maintain and update such files without updating the DTM.

The business benefit for device vendors is that they need to support only one solution for multiple purposes. The DTM package can support traditional service and IoT use cases. The business benefit for an end user is that they can use a well-established, mature technology as the base for their information access.

FDT Server enables digital twin product simulation as part of the lifecycle. Courtesy: FDT Group

FDT Server enables digital twin product simulation as part of the lifecycle. Courtesy: FDT Group

Improve design and performance

Digital twin improves control and configuration for the lifecycle – including improving plant design and operational performance – through semantic interoperability.

Currently, there are many ways of providing support for plant design. Also, there is no common solution for transferring knowledge from early phases of the production system lifecycle (like from plant design) to the operation phase.

If the device data for supporting plant design would be annotated with semantic information, it would be easier for system planners and operators to understand device data and the relationship between the planning data and the current configuration of the device. With the FDT OPC UA information model, it is possible to access this information from any user application.

Expanded connectivity

Implementing the FDT/OPC UA model offers expanded connectivity of engineering, distributed control, asset management and other systems as part of IIoT and applications in the modern connected world.

The technology is designed to provide a vendor-neutral software interface for integrating assets and delivering access to device intelligence for end-users with process, factory (discrete) and hybrid operations. In these diverse markets, with unique operational requirements, the technology enables a common environment for utilizing smart devices’ most sophisticated features.

Commissioning and start-up are two of the most crucial use cases for digital twin, as people become less dependent on physical devices. The value of digital twin is in quicker configuration and modernization of lifecycle process in a simulated environment.

Imagine operating with all the accuracy but without the boundaries of a physical device. The simulated device can understand the environment and sends values back to the user.  The information model is coming directly from the device.

FDT is bridging the real world and the virtual world, enabling secure communication across any network and hierarchy of networks allowing modeling of any protocol or device. With digital twin it will be possible to change applications and use DTM’s to configure, simulate, check behavior, make decisions and learn from past actions.

– This originally appeared on Control Engineering Europe’s website and was written by FDT Group, a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

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