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Decarbonization In The Industrial Sector: How Digital Twins Can Support Sustainability Efforts

Forbes Technology Council

Vikas Agrawal, Co-Founder & CEO, Visionaize Inc.

Of the new and emerging technologies making the scene right now, digital twins are among the most exciting in terms of sheer transformative potential. Digital twins give businesses the ability to improve upon existing systems and technologies by running advanced simulations backed by machine learning algorithms.

This technology can be used to improve upon many existing systems and processes, but perhaps the greatest benefit it offers can be found in the decarbonization of the industrial sector. By leveraging in-depth systems data, digital twins can help industries become more sustainable and support the move to net zero.

Net zero, also called carbon neutrality, refers to the state in which greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced out by their removal from the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change adopted in 2015, set the goal to "limit the [global average] temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels," and the U.N. notes that would require reaching net zero by 2050.

This is no small task, as several industries are far from carbon neutral—including the industrial sector. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), industries are responsible for 23% of greenhouse gas emissions, making them the third largest producer of greenhouse gases behind electric power (25%) and transportation (28%). The size of the industrial sector's carbon footprint, coupled with the sheer complexity of the field, makes the push for decarbonization both very important and exceptionally difficult.

This is where digital twins come into play. These virtual models are designed to accurately reflect physical objects, ranging from single pieces of equipment in a factory to entire industrial facilities and even entire cities. They're created using real-time data sent from sensors placed on the object to simulate their behavior and monitor operations.

From there, digital twins can use machine learning algorithms to process this data, allowing them to run advanced simulations and identify patterns. This feed of real-time data, along with the added computing power of the virtual environment, gives them the ability to study more issues from many possible vantage points, opening up the potential to greatly improve systems and processes—including decarbonization strategies.

Even beyond the obvious potential for reducing carbon emissions, digital twin technologies and the ESG initiatives they can support also have clear financial benefits for industries. Predictive analytics give updates on when equipment will need to be replaced and identify factors that could lead to abnormal operations and breakdowns. This can result in greatly reduced repair costs and help avoid downtime. With data-driven insights, digital twins can improve risk management efforts while delivering significant energy, carbon, capital and operational savings.

Despite the obvious benefits of using digital twins, a few challenges have slowed down their widespread adoption. For one, a digital twin isn't a single technology but a concept made up of several different technologies working together. To create a digital twin, you need sensors for your equipment and ample infrastructure for computing, communication and storage. This can make for a large initial investment, leaving some hesitant to get started. Additionally, for a digital twin to function optimally, a company's many departments need to work closely together and share data.

To overcome these issues, start by identifying clear use cases for digital twins before investing in the technology itself. Too often, companies will adopt technologies without a plan for how to use them, leading to waste and inefficiency. By identifying the objective you want digital twins to assist with, you will have a better understanding of the investments that need to be made and how to go about making them.

There's also the issue of technical expertise. Since many of the technologies needed to make digital twins are fairly new, a company might lack the requisite knowledge within its team or the right relationships with appropriate vendors. In these situations, the best option is to seek out business partnerships to help with the early steps.

Companies can onboard partners that have the required and proven expertise in the domain or industry and a roadmap for deployment and governance as well as an understanding of the unique challenges and the tools that align with business strategies. Companies can adopt the "crawl, walk, run" approach by starting with a pilot or proof of concept to avoid expensive, failed or low-ROI implementations.

We worked with a polymer manufacturer of FIBC bags that, in order to provide competitive pricing to its customers, conducted a comparative study and found that the energy consumption in the manufacturing process was a major cost. After the management team was advised to onboard a digital twin technology provider to monitor the energy consumption by different machines in the manufacturing process, an initial study of the manufacturing process was conducted, and a pilot program was designed to install sensors and collect the data for incoming power, heater power and cooling tank power.

After a few weeks of monitoring the energy consumption, it was identified that the ceramic heaters were consuming 70% of the power. We helped the manufacturer identify alternate heaters, and upon replacing the ceramic heaters with IR heaters in a pilot machine, the energy consumption was reduced by 60%. After six months of continuous monitoring, the manufacturer found that it had recovered the cost of new IR heaters, sensors and the digital twin solution—which also reduced its carbon footprint. The manufacturer has now upgraded all of its ceramic heaters to IR heaters and also installed a renewable energy unit as an alternate supply to further reduce energy costs and its carbon footprint.

While companies will inevitably face challenges, digital twins offer a number of benefits that make them vital for the industrial sector's net-zero push. Supported by advanced simulation and extensive data, companies can make more informed decisions regarding their daily operations—bolstering efficiency and improving risk management. For businesses looking to take meaningful action toward environmental sustainability in their industries, digital twins can be a valuable part of the process.

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