When a pandemic accelerates the journey to digital twins

Posted: June 4, 2020

When hundreds of millions of workers were forced to quarantine themselves, the ability to work remotely became a basic requirement for business continuity.

During the lockdown, the definition of an “essential” worker was largely defined by the need to perform physical work at a specified physical location. In other words, the worker was required to go to the place of work. The pandemic is now forcing a reexamination of all work processes to better understand how the work can be brought to the worker instead. Basic questions that are part of such an exercise include:

  • Is the type of work considered physical (using muscles) or logical (using minds) or both?
  • Does the work require the worker to be at the location? Near it? Away from others?
  • Are there opportunities to reduce the amount of time spent on physical work?

Workers whose job involved dealing with information adapted by mobilizing off-the-shelf tools like Zoom, Skype, etc. In such cases, the transition happened quickly because trends like outsourcing and freelancing had already set the stage well before the pandemic.

For industrial workers whose job requires physical activities along the supply chain, automation has been steadily replacing muscles. While the pandemic surely accelerates this trend, it warrants a broader conversation about how the industrial worker of the future will adapt to a new world of work.

Remote visibility: A basic step towards digital twins

As AVEVA responded to help clients ensure operational continuity, the need for remote visibility became a top priority as manufacturers sought to keep a skeleton crew on-site necessary for control. Offsite plant personnel were enabled with read-only access to HMI for operational awareness, analysis and decision support.

For the worker that is now offsite, the digitalization gap becomes immediately evident. What they could easily observe and be aware of while on-site must either be captured and conveyed by the skeleton crew on-site – or via sensors. And if it is decided that the remote work is to be made permanent, the next step would be digitalizing the closed-loop process to capture higher levels of fidelity, which in effect represents a process twin.

Thinking like Lundin

A customer example who went through a similar thought process (but for different reasons) is Norway-based Lundin, who builds and operates offshore rigs in the North Sea. In a sense, an offshore rig operates much like a “quarantined” environment – crews work on it for extended periods of time due to access constraints.  In the following video, Geir Sjøsåsen, Operations Advisor, explains the rationale for its Digital Twin project in terms of work that is done on-shore vs. off-shore:

Lundin is just one example of several instances where Digital Twin technology helps “bring the operational work to the worker”. For Lundin, the economic drivers were straightforward: Off-shore work is more expensive than on-shore. Similarly, the quarantine situation creates a new unanticipated cost: the risk to a worker being onsite. Whether these new working conditions represent an anomaly or a new normal to be planned for will depend on the type of business. Nevertheless, companies must account for this new factor.

Each environment brings different challenges

While a physical presence is inevitable to operating the physical supply chain, some production environments lend themselves to a greater degree of remote operations. Early adopters of this trend have been the continuous process and certain discrete repetitive industries which have higher levels of automation. These highly instrumented environments make it (relatively) easier to minimize essential workers on-site and shift many operational functions off-site using high-fidelity Digital Twins.

But on the other end of the spectrum, the typical discrete manufacturing environment has higher labor content where the human is the production capacity or primary asset in the transformation process. For these plants, the immediate priority is the protection of these human assets by redesigning layouts and processes to accommodate social distancing practices and new safety guidelines to mitigate the new risk. Regardless of the type of environment, there is a growing realization that how we work has been unalterably changed because of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic. As every environment is now forced to reexamine their work processes, it is also an opportunity to use Digital Twins as a framework to re-imagine the new world of work.


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