Standards for digital twins

The concept of the digital twin harbors tremendous potential. However, companies need to overcome certain challenges before they can exploit that potential. A lack of standards is the biggest problem in this regard, but a solution now appears to be emerging.

The members of CBA Lab have developed a new reference architecture that can be implemented in all business and industrial sectors and used by companies as a basis for developing digital twins. Britta Boldt, an enterprise architect at Volkswagen Konzernlogistik GmbH & Co. OHG and a member of CBA Lab’s reference architecture working group, says Volkswagen Konzernlogistik definitely plans to use the new architecture.

Back in the fall of 2019, CBA Lab and the Detecon consulting firm conducted a study in which they surveyed 170 companies from ten business sectors to learn about their plans for developing digital twins. The study revealed that a lack of standards was viewed as the biggest obstacle in this area. Only the lack of implementation knowledge in the companies themselves was considered to be a similar major challenge. Other obstacles cited were the lack of suitable business models, insufficient IT infrastructure, and excessive outsourcing of IT resources. Data security was also an issue, but most of the companies surveyed viewed it as manageable (see Figure 1).

The work conducted on the reference architecture has enabled CBA Lab to simultaneously address two challenges: standardization and the development of expertise for those who need it.

A reference architecture that can also be used in the partner ecosystem

The reference architecture developed by CBA Lab (see Figure 2) comprises three vertical levels (Physical, Integration, and Model) and a special separate fourth level for Overall Capabilities. The latter consists of skills and capabilities in the areas of lifecycle management, mobile device management, machine and deep learning, big data, and other company-wide functions and activities. Overall Capabilities are available to the entire IT organization at a company – and not just to the digital twin.

Arranged across the vertical levels are, first, the Capabilities layer, and then above that the Application/Data and Physical layers. A fourth layer – the 3rd Party Ecosystem tier – ensures security and API management across all levels.

“The exceptional quality of the reference architecture is due to the fact that it can be used within a company not only to develop digital twins and compare solution components from different providers but also as a basis for collaboration in a partner ecosystem,” says Verena Schmidtmann, who is responsible for the Digital Twin working group and is also a partner at Detecon.

If, for example, a company buys a machine for a production line, this machine is generally delivered today with a digital counterpart and has to be integrated into the existing digital twin landscape. In such a situation, Schmidtmann points out, the new reference architecture can serve as a neutral coordination framework that makes it easier to integrate digital twins into their environment.

At the same time, Schmidtmann admits that “the results of the workstream do not solve all integration issues. In terms of semantics in particular, certain pieces of the puzzle are still missing, and these need to be provided by various standardization bodies.” However, Schmidtmann also believes that enterprise architects will serve as the authority for establishing the structures for required integration tasks.

Demonstrator makes the effects apparent

In order to avoid becoming too abstract, the architects also developed a demonstrator that helps them analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the reference architecture and also makes it possible to explain the benefits of the architecture to those who know little about such systems. The demonstrator was created with the help of two Raspberry PI computers and the IoT Cloud from Bosch. It shows how the digital twin of a refrigerator installed in an electric camper van improves the energy management of the overall system.

An integrated dashboard also makes it possible to monitor and control actuators and control loops. “We are thus able to move away from an abstraction and enable haptic perception of the digital twin and its effects,” Boldt explains. As Boldt also points out, the reference architecture makes it possible to utilize digital twins in different business sectors, as is demonstrated by the interdisciplinary cooperation within CBA Lab itself. In addition, the use of the demonstrator ensures that everyone can see the benefits offered by the architecture. 

26 percent do not understand the digital twin concept

Presenting the benefits offered by the new reference architecture is in fact important, as many companies are still very hesitant about utilizing digital twins. In the study from 2019, 64 percent of survey respondents reported being more or less very familiar with the digital twin concept, while 26 percent said they had no experience with it. Only 36 percent of the German companies and organizations surveyed reported that they had already developed initial approaches for using digital twins.

Half the respondents said they were planning to launch pilot projects over the next 12 months. However, they also said they believe that a three-year period will be needed to fully integrate pilot projects into ongoing operations. At the same time, the study revealed that the use of digital twins in all categories is likely to double over the next five years.

Digital twins are used most frequently for product development and prototype construction, and least frequently for initial product design. Those surveyed believe that the biggest benefit offered by digital twins is that they increase efficiency. Other benefits cited include increasing a company’s ability to meet customer requirements and improving the processes used to develop new products. Most of those surveyed think that digital twins in general offer their companies major opportunities; only a small minority of 13 percent believe digital twins pose some type of danger.

“The study results confirm just how valuable cross-sector cooperation is at CBA Lab,” says Karsten Schweichhart, Member of the Board of CBA Lab. “The common interest of everyone involved and the exchange of information on pilot projects have noticeably led to what is today the most valuable component of innovation: speed.”

Download  the study 

Detailed work results are available exclusively to CBA Lab members. 

This article appeared in a similar form in “Computerwoche” (17-18/20).

Figure 1: Challenges
Figure 2: The reference architecture developed by CBA Lab
Dr. Verena Schmidtmann, Workstream Coordinator

The exceptional quality of the reference architecture is due to the fact that it can be used within a company not only to develop digital twins and compare solution components from different providers but also as a basis for collaboration in a partner ecosystem.