Digital Twins: An Engineer’s Crystal Ball and Secret Weapon
By modeling systems before they are built, engineers can accurately predict performance and mitigate time and resources wasted on real-life testing and development
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Model before moving forward. That’s the premise with most endeavors — you draft a report before publishing it, sketch a drawing before inking it, test a vaccine before distributing it. So why should engineering be any different?
That’s the reasoning behind the introduction of a modeling approach only made possible by advances in high performance computing: digital twins. This future-focused technology empowers a shift from trial-and-error-based engineering and design and operations silos to systematic, science-based engineering and operations optimization.
Digital twins act as replicas of physical objects, allowing scientists and engineers to model and test the feasibility and impact of an idea and predict performance before putting it into practice. This technology represents a two-way push and pull of data — the system is fed data and returns information in the form of alerts and notifications. Data provided by digital twins plays a major role in offering production and performance predictions, as well as operation and sustainability metrics to predict maintenance requirements. Though this new engineering paradigm offers countless benefits, as with any emerging technology, there are roadblocks that may hinder its embrace.
The list is long when it comes to the benefits of digital twins. By modeling systems before they are built, engineers can accurately predict performance and mitigate time and resources wasted on real-life testing and development. Digital twins use the results from that design system model combined with operational inputs to effectively allow for risk reduction in decision-making and decreased financial risk, which is especially important in the federal government, where budgets are tight and unforeseen risk can be devastating.
Through augmented reality and virtual reality, digital twins make it possible for teams to connect, regardless of the mileage between them, for fast, efficient, and “hands-on” support, which is especially crucial in our increasingly remote world. With digital twins, engineers and scientists can be one step ahead, leveraging predictive analytics capabilities that make it possible to anticipate what is to come and allow the system to improve over time with targeted and data-based recommendations for enhancements.
As with any new technology, cost and fear are the biggest hurdles to overcome with regard to embracing digital twins. Because it is an innovative technology, engineers may fall into the trap of relying on a digital twin for the “cool factor,” rather than remaining focused on solving a challenge. The majority of a system’s costs lies in the operations, maintenance, and sustainment lifecycle. It is during this part of the system lifecycle where the cost of digital twin implementation can quickly be recovered when applied to improve cost, accuracy, availability, and readiness. By applying digital twin technology to challenges of that nature, there is the potential for true return on investment and millions in cost savings.
The second key barrier with digital twins is fear, often rooted in mistrust. With a digital twin, you rely on a digital system to predict how a physical system behaves or will behave in the real world. This reliance on technology can raise questions about the reliability of the projections and predictions returned by a digital twin. Is the system making the right decision? Do the humans in the loop believe the feedback the digital system has provided? To reap the many benefits of digital twins, those involved have to understand what they are seeing, comprehend why a specific action is needed, and trust the guidance they are given. It’s a leap of faith to embrace new technology, but as more examples are created, acceptance and education will only increase.
Despite these challenges, various government agencies and branches of the military have been able to successfully begin taking advantage of digital twin technology. For example, NASA is leveraging it to design, manage, and predict operations and maintenance for moon missions and beyond. Up against the unique environment and subsequent challenges that come with the severe conditions in space, digital twins can help engineers optimize exploration and bring a new world of opportunity — and safety.
Back on Earth, the Department of Defense (DOD) is taking advantage of digital twins in order to improve the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative. For context, JADC2 is the DOD’s concept to connect sensors from all of the military services into a single network. By using digital twin technology, the DOD can effectively optimize its missions by maintaining a more accurate sense of what aircraft is in the sky, which boots are on the ground, and where exactly everything stands — all in real time. By doing so, the DOD gains a new level of efficiency and greater visibility into mission-critical situations, which provides a leg up against other foreign militaries who may not.
Digital twins are stepping into the forefront of the technology world at just the right time. Alongside the introduction of hypersonic vehicles, commercial space travel, and more, the opportunities are endless. By gaining a deep understanding of the capabilities that come with this technology, we are able to make advancements and solve problems that seemed unimaginable only a matter of years ago.
Posted by: Amanda Koons-Stapf
Chief Solutions Architect
Amanda Koons-Stapf is a chief solutions architect of digital engineering/digital sustainment within the Strategy, Growth, and Innovation group.
As chief solutions architect, Koons-Stapf works to develop sound, repeatable digital engineering offerings, pursuing research and investments in digital thread and digital twins. Koons-Stapf has led solutions for digital engineering opportunities across all of SAIC’s government customers while directing various logistics programs to ensure that the logistics and supply chain requirements of SAIC customers are met.
Koons-Stapf joined SAIC in 2008 as a reliability engineer at Kennedy Space Center, where she worked with NASA engineers to quantitatively perform reliability, availability, and maintainability (RAM) analyses on various systems and subsystems. Koons-Stapf was instrumental in improving the overall launch availability from the Space Shuttle program to Ground Systems Development and Operations (GSDO) from 88% to 98%.
Koons-Stapf has been featured in more than a dozen conferences and publications, including the Military Operations Research Society Symposium, the IEEE International Reliability Physics Symposium, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SpaceOps Conference, and many more.
She has received numerous awards, including the Society of Women Engineers’ 2012 Space Coast Woman Engineer Technical Achievement Award; NASA KSC Certificate of Appreciation for “dedication and innovation supporting the reliability, maintainability, and availability field”; and Certificate of Appreciation from the KLXS contract for “pioneering efforts within the RAM community to directly support the NASA LX customer,” among others.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from Georgia Tech; completed graduate courses in mathematics, probability, and statistics at the University of Central Florida; and is a Certified Reliability Engineer.