By now, almost every shipbuilding executive has heard of the Digital Twin. Even though only a minority know how to get started implementing one (and even fewer already have what can truly be called a digital twin), at this point it is not a new concept. The latest challenge lies in understanding the practical benefits and implementation of the digital twin as it relates to production.
For shipbuilders, this is a particularly crucial distinction. Compared to other industries, shipbuilding is production engineering. If the digital twin is only useful for design, it is valuable, but limited to just a small slice of a project. But what many shipbuilders might not realize is that they are likely already implementing aspects of a ‘Production Twin’ – without even knowing it.
Shipbuilding and Production Engineering
Across our industry, it’s common to hear the term Production Engineering used. At the root of this is the need for shipbuilders to constantly keep production capabilities top of mind during the design and engineering phases. From raw material considerations to crane capacities to construction sequence preferences, each factor influences the final product. If during detailed design, each one of these constraints could be factored in without fail (i.e. nothing was overlooked), the risk of downstream consequences would be minimized or eliminated. This is exactly why the idea of a production twin is so crucial for shipbuilding.
We are already seeing improvements in how design, engineering, and production teams communicate and work together when information silos are eliminated from an organization, but having access to a single source of truth that contains information on production constraints is a further step towards a seamless process.
The improved communication teams can achieve through the adoption of a Digital Twin is an important selling point. We see this reflected in much of the literature and marketing materials surrounding Digital Twins. However, only a minority (under a fifth of papers, for example) describe a collaborative framework that allows for information to flow both in and out of the Digital Twin. Having that dynamic flow of information, continuously updated and improved, allows for better design and engineering workflows with less isolation, increased co-working between departments and disciplines, and an ultimately improved change management workflow.
Since for shipbuilding in particular, establishing and capturing production conditions early on is intrinsically important to the project lifecycle, it stands that the information associated with those production constraints should be taken advantage of. In reality, this manifests itself as the ability to pull information from the Digital Twin, rather than just feed it with generated data and means that there is no need to create an entirely different paradigm or framework when it comes time for fabrication and construction. Taken together, the digital information generated during design and engineering, combined with production constraints and the ability to both push and pull information, is the Production Digital Twin.
However, many shipbuilders have already been using part of this capability without ever calling it a Digital Twin. The NC models of the past, and the transfer of information from engineering software directly to machinery on the shop floor are this same concept. The difference is that now, through additional innovations and an increased focus on information transfer, it is possible to see the same workflow benefits across the entire project.
Just as ‘shipbuilding engineering’ is production engineering, the shipbuilding Digital Twin will be a production Digital Twin. While shipbuilding is not as unique as many might say, for an organization in our industry to go through a successful digital or business transformation, shipbuilding focused concepts like the production Digital Twin will need to be in place.
What will come next is a focus on improving how the Digital Twin will benefit shipbuilders across the entire lifecycle of the project – from initial design through to decommissioning – and on how the latest innovations in VR/AR/IoT can be implemented in a way that makes long-term business sense. Information integration will continue to become easier. Shipbuilders will be able to connect to any data source, pull from one and seamlessly push to another. The advantages of doing so are already visible as design and engineering teams see less rework and production workflows increasingly reference a single source of truth. Together, shipbuilding will be in a position to fundamentally improve how vessels are designed, engineered, and constructed without the need to shoehorn in processes that were developed for other industries that do not face the same constraints.