Comment: Digital twins can optimise operations and address the skills gap

For engineering organisations, embracing digital twin technology to address managerial and technical processes will allow them to upskill and safeguard their bottom line, says Clive Downie, SVP & general manager, Digital Twins at Unity.


The IET’s recent report, ‘Engineering Kids’ Futures’, outlined an estimated skills shortfall of more than 173,000 workers across the STEM sector in the UK, with 49 per cent of engineering businesses experiencing difficulties recruiting skilled employees. 

According to Professor Bashir M. Al-Hashimi of the UK Electronics Skills Foundation, a radical and transformative programme is needed to address not only the engineer shortage but also the emerging skills gaps in digital and environmental sustainability. The professor says industry must play its part in redressing these skills gaps, with engineering businesses offering paid internships for students. 

Such a transformation will also mean using the powerful technologies to make skills training more immersive and efficient. 

Companies that are leading the way in evolving training strategies are increasingly finding the effectiveness of digital twins, in which virtual and augmented reality creates the environments to test theory, visualise complex subjects, provide predictive models and enable highly personalised feedback for trainees. 

Digital Twins and skills training 

A digital twin is a dynamic virtual copy of a physical asset, process, system or environment that behaves identically to its real-world counterpart. This enables the performance of a physical asset to be modelled, predicated, and even visualised with smart data analytics.

By mirroring the real world with a realistic and responsive digital one, digital twins complement training programmes with real-time 3D training exercises, to deliver highly immersive and personalised learning. These merge gaming and education experiences, often through virtual roleplay, to reinforce decision-making skills. The effectiveness of this method is articulated by Accenture in an immersive learning whitepaper which concludes: “the more active the learning, the more effective the outcomes.”

By simulating real-world scenarios and allowing trainees to interact with the environment, digital twins help them to understand complex concepts and build skills more effectively across a range of sectors. Through being programmed to respond as the real-world would, digital twins enable engineers to predict and manage potential performance issues that will occur in general use - or in rare situations, challenging incidents. The technology supports better testing to strengthen the performance of engineering projects, as well as business operations, by understanding and working with materials and systems more intelligently.

An aircraft engineer trainee, for example, may wish to understand the stress on a jet engine incurred over a decade, and design appropriate engineering solutions, which currently requires years of expensive on-the-job training. Through a digital twin paired with a real-world aeroplane, the trainee might safely and cost-effectively test multiple solutions relevant to the engine over a shorter time-frame. Trainees would also benefit from digital twin environments being used to assess their progress more accurately, enabling trainers to measure their conceptual understanding and progress over time.

Training received via digital twins can therefore be readily applied to real-world circumstances, unlocking greater efficiencies and output. It is estimated the technology can accelerate products’ time to market by as much as 50 per cent, contributing to profitability and creating a powerhouse of digitally enabled engineers.

From training to operations 

Digital twins also enhance operations by emulating, visualising, and simulating real-world assets to drive efficiencies. Digital twin technologies reduce costs and improve operational performance by making it simpler to manage, operate, and optimise large-scale infrastructure, facilities, and manufacturing plants.

From a managerial perspective, digital twin technology can also support engineering companies during skills shortages by removing inefficiencies in the learning process and targeting training at specific design and manufacturing processes. 

To do this, digital twins offer smarter data management and value extraction for existing engineering data (including CAD assemblies, meshes and point clouds), leading to better resource allocation, and therefore smarter maintenance and human resources planning, reduced risk and less downtime.

This makes better use of material and the time taken to test current and future solutions, expediting optimal outcomes as projects are constructed.

Digital twin technologies have grown out of the gaming, filmmaking and animation industries, and are now becoming mature solutions across a range of industries, creating a connected future for ongoing operations and their talent. For engineering organisations, embracing digital twin technology to address their managerial and technical processes will not only allow them to upskill, it will also allow them to safeguard their bottom line in challenging economic environments. 

 Clive Downie, SVP & general manager, digital twins at Unity