Digital threads connect workflows between users
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The recent Esri 2021 User Conference was a major event for virtual replicas of real-world entities, known as digital twins. Real-world digital applications are also starting to benefit from complementary technology known as digital wires. According to Dennis Beck, president of Spatial Business Systems, digital threads offer a way to integrate a full digital twin into workflows for different types of users. At Esri event, users discussed how this nascent technology could optimize snowmaking operations at a ski resort, improve power grid management on a power grid, and streamline foot traffic in a hospital adapting to COVID-19 restrictions.
In some ways, geographic information systems (GIS) were the original digital twins even before the term was born, Beck said. He believes that a new interest in digital threads will improve integration not only of data, but also of processes between users, and that GIS will often be the glue.
“Having a system platform to link information is essential, and we believe GIS is the platform that does it,” Beck told an audience at the Esri virtual meeting. The industry also needs better digital yarns, he added.
What are digital wires?
This is because digital threads are a digital model made up of a set of data transformation models. An instance of a digital thread captures changes to design models, basic hardware description language executables, and databases throughout a product’s lifecycle.
Beck characterized a digital twin as a digital model of a real-world object that can support the relationship between objects and evolve over time. As the industry has been working on the precursors of modern digital twins since the mid-1980s, activity has accelerated as new types of data are ingested at ever faster speeds.
Beck has done extensive work for utility companies to help them integrate workflows spanning material traceability, supply chain analysis, long-term quality control, and demolition. This effort includes creating user experiences that allow people in different roles to work with project data. These modern applications benefit from digital twin and digital threading capabilities.
For example, Beck said, repair crews need to know the technical properties of equipment, such as mounting height. Manufacturers should understand specifications, material information and conditions of use. Builders need detailed plans and landscape information. Maintenance teams need to know how to access a site without intrusion. And finance teams need to know how much a part costs, how long it will last, and how much it costs to maintain.
Ignore digital wires at your own risk
Beck told VentureBeat that digital twins haven’t particularly taken off in areas like critical infrastructure design because the focus is on speed and efficiency. But faster designs have come at the expense of information management.
Now the trends are changing, with enhancements to tools that speed up design and preserve data relationships between applications. It is now possible to create an intelligent design based on a model in less time than it used to take to make simple working sketches. For example, new features such as raster analysis automate conversions between map images and features, objects, or events needed for other applications. Esri is also working on a host of new integration and user experience capabilities to simplify digital threads.
“It allows people to take these rich models and leverage integration through service-based architectures to create a common information-based ecosystem,” Beck said. “This is what enables the digital twins and the digital wire.”
With its extensive geolocation experience, Esri appears well positioned to fill a wide range of applications and use cases that power digital twins. In various discussions at the recent event, users explored how digital twins and digital threads will develop.
Healthier hospitals and offices
Esri has gone to great lengths to bring location intelligence inside. The goal is to improve asset tracking, optimize facilities and streamline facility planning. Loma Linda University Health CIO Mark Zirkelbach said medical facility digital twins have helped staff plan and optimize COVID-19 social distancing signage for visitors during the pandemic. Later, he also wants to use digital feeds to make it easier for staff to find expensive assets such as medical devices, drugs and other regulated assets, as well as critical assets that can be scattered around the hospital, such as as oxygen tanks.
Arup Digital specialist Luke Cooper said creating digital twins of his company’s real estate complexes made it easier for staff to transition to the office after the lockdown. Arup has 16,000 employees in 94 offices. Workers return with limited hours, and digital twins help improve the employee experience when they find a desk – and find each other – in an ever-changing environment. Technology also allows operational teams to understand why employees use certain offices less than others. Cooper also found that a shared digital twin can help improve conversations about issues when employees need to quickly reach consensus.
Facilitate quality control
Further improvements to ESRI have focused on extending the use of digital feeds to more users, all with appropriate governance. During the conference, Brian Abcunas, electrical engineer associated with Peabody Municipal Lighting and Electrical, talked about creating a workflow to make it easier for more people to notice errors in their network’s digital twin. The power company is constantly making changes, like replacing transformers or adding circuits, which are not always updated on the main board. Traditionally, one person was responsible for crossing paper documents, CAD drawings and GIS maps to find errors. Now the Abcunas team has streamlined the process using a web interface.
In another application, Telluride Ski and Golf Resort recently built a digital twin of its facility to help orchestrate an ambitious expansion of its snowmaking operation. GIS analyst and drone operator Matt Tarkington said a digital twin allows the resort to plan for long-term sustainability while using as little water and electricity as possible. The digital twin also helps coordinate communication about critical events, such as avalanches, equipment failures and accidents, between teams in real time.
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