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Digital twin for the win

The World Economic Forum (WEF) states that leveraging the digital twin to support Industry 4.0 business models could increase operational efficiency by ten per cent. This allows manufacturers to simulate the behaviour of real machines for operational gains. Here, I explain the benefits of a digital twin that is controlled by automation software.

The idea behind using a digital twin is to take the place of a real machine for testing and development scenarios. They can be used for prototyping, product design, user training and testing. Machine builders and operators need to conduct extensive tests on systems and control software, and using a digital twin offers a safer and more cost-effective way to do this.


Good performance and safe operation are essential in industrial machinery. Equipment is often expensive, and failures or breakdowns can incur even larger costs. Industrial operations require high quality and reliability even in challenging processes, and their machines are often operated 24/7. To ensure that they can withstand operating conditions and to evaluate the risk of applying a software patch which is due to a security vulnerability, testing is required. These testing processes, while essential, can be time consuming and costly. This adds additional time to the commissioning and manufacturing process and complicates matters further when a machine isn’t available, or where testing under extreme conditions can be dangerous. This is where digital twins come in.


COPA-DATA and the Vorarlberg company Eberle Automatische Systeme, together with the Salzburg and Vorarlberg Universities of Applied Sciences, have pioneered a way to simulate machine behaviour using a digital twin to take the place of a machine for testing purposes. This can be run with COPA-DATA’s automation platform zenon.


Based on physics principles, the simulation is as real as possible, from the mass of the elements to be tested down to the friction levels on machine surfaces. Users can add actuators, sensors and other elements to the virtual machine using a library before running realistic simulation scenarios with minimal additional programming.


When developing new machines, developers depend on having access to the machine and programmable logic controller (PLC) to develop the Human-Machine Interface (HMI) and the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software. Using a digital twin, engineers can begin to implement and test these systems more efficiently, and these tests won’t need to be repeated, as the twin is operated based on ‘real’ sensors and actuators.


Implementing a digital twin is also quite straightforward with effective planning and mathematical modelling.


Using models to describe the behaviour of robots or machinery components and defining interactions between them can create a simulation of even complex systems, and this can then be used for further testing and analysis based on the twin. Using a digital twin can boost production and improve the timescales and efficiency of equipment commissioning processes. Some processes can be carried out in parallel, for example the development of HMI and SCADA systems without the final PLC. If zenon is used in conjunction with the digital twin software design programme digifai, the two platforms can communicate out of the box, for easy integration and strategy planning for systems integrators.


Engineers can take different approaches when it comes to developing a digital twin. One way is through using an automation platform like zenon, which can support the development and evaluation of the models needed for an effective digital twin. zenon provides real-time data from existing machinery components, allowing the engineers and integrators creating the models to receive instant feedback on their developments. This method even has the potential to facilitate automatic development and training of digital twins in future.


On the other side of the process, zenon could use the information generated by a digital twin to automatically create content such as alarms, tag lists and navigation patterns based on the algorithms. Digital twins offer a convenient way to improve the operational efficiency and commissioning process for industrial machinery by reducing lead times and costs, as well as reducing risks associated with training or testing. By using an automation platform, integrators can boost connectivity further for a quicker, safer and more cost-effective testing process to ensure that their industrial machinery will meet their operational needs.