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MAD for Digital Twins

Article by Anro Redelinghuys

From the first steam engine in 1698 to an era where factory equipment and processes can be monitored from a ski vacation in Switzerland. This all seemed like a dream and very farfetched, until the rise of the Digital Twin.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, is the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, arising from the rapid increase in capabilities of the Internet of Things. Industry 4.0 is focused on creating a smart, networked world, where the word smart is added to everything. Digital Twins are currently on the rise as emerging technologies of Industry 4.0 and a key consideration for interaction between the virtual and physical worlds. In layman’s terms – a Digital Twin is a virtual representation of the system in the real world and mirrors the behaviour through sensor connections.

The MAD engineers or (probably) better known as the Mechatronic, Automation and Design Research Group engineers (Faculty of Engineering, Stellenbosch University), started research into digital manufacturing in 2017 and since then developed Digital Twin architectures that are able to connect current and future equipment and processes to their counterpart (Digital Twin) in cyberspace. The first Digital Twin architecture was presented at a conference in Italy in the mid of 2018. This was followed by the attendance of several international conferences, which was held in Stellenbosch and in Spain.

The first research into Digital Twins aimed to develop a reference architecture that connects physical equipment to their digital counterpart. A Six-Layer Architecture for Digital Twins was developed to mirror the behaviour of the real-world component in cyberspace, through an Internet of Things connection. This architecture was expanded to create what’s called a Digital Twin of Twins, where the Digital Twins of various components communicate with each other so that Digital Twins for complex, diverse systems can be created and updated. (See Digital Twin demonstration here.)

Another vision of Industry 4.0 is to develop Human Digital Twins and no, this is nothing like the movies, Transcendence or I, Robot. Instead, this research considers the integration of humans in the industries of the future, especially in the context of South Africa. This research aims to effectively integrate human workers through Digital Twins. The digital integration of humans into the manufacturing workspace has been proven through case studies to have significant advantage for industries of the future.

Now, Digital Twins are being applied to wider applications as well – Digital Twins of solar power plants, Digital Twins of people on a ship, Digital Twins of hospitals, Digital Twins of cows, and the list goes on. The possibilities and influence of having a digital counterpart of everything, in the context of South Africa, are yet to be revealed. The ground-breaking research and state of the art architectures, developed by MAD engineers, contribute to shaping a South African Industry 4.0. Some people even mentioned that the MAD research group can be considered as: “the cradle of your Digital Twin”.

The Digital Twin concept will also be further enhanced by investigating the possibilities and value of using technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and a HoloLens. The laboratory of the research group is also equipped with various equipment such as robots, conveyor belt systems and eye tracking glasses. The creativity, however, starts with the members of the research group. A stimulating environment where creative thinking leads to creative ideas – the by-product of lots of coffee, lame jokes and good-natured banter.

Under the supervision of Prof Anton Basson and Dr Karel Kruger (kkruger@sun.ac.za), the current MAD research group consists of local and international students. In the photo from left are: Nicole Taylor, Carlo Human, Dennis Fuchs (Germany), Dale Sparrow, Anro Redelinghuys and Loïc Lacombe (France).