The Digital Twin at the Center of Renewable Energy

According to the German Wind Energy Association (BWE), the share of wind energy in German electricity production this year is 27 percent, and in 2020 wind energy even represented the most important energy source in the German electricity mix. In total, more than 31,000 turbines have been installed, saving 89 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2019. Wind power is thus a mainstay of low-CO2 and sustainable energy generation and makes an important contribution to the energy transition. Further increasing yields while reducing maintenance costs is therefore of great importance.

Increasing the efficiency of wind farms with smart systems

Digital Twins are the central element in exploiting the full potential of wind power and maximizing yields. Driven by the vision of creating a data-based development tool for the wind industry, the WIND IO joint project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, started a year and a half ago.

Under the leadership of the Institute for Integrated Product Development BIK at the University of Bremen, we are working with several consortium partners to build research facilities as cyber-physical systems and retrofit them with sensors, electronics and computers known as IoT gateways. This makes it possible to digitally map all the operating information of the real plant and combine it on a digital twin. The operating behavior can be simulated on the basis of the Digital Twin, which in turn provides insights for further optimization of the wind turbine. The Digital Twin not only provides information about the current energy yield, but also offers a comprehensive overall picture of the condition of each individual turbine.

Improved installation, maintenance and overhaul processes

The information obtained can be used, for example, to optimize maintenance and overhaul processes. For example, the data makes the aging process of components transparent at all times and automatically triggers an alarm if defined limit parameters are exceeded. The Digital Twin also uses the operating, environmental and weather data collected to determine a favorable time for maintenance of the plant. Ideally, this should be carried out when there is little wind, so as not to be at the expense of energy generation.

Both statistical methods and Artificial Intelligence (AI) models are used for the calculations. These methods also help to determine the best time to assemble a wind turbine, since the rotor blades can only be installed under certain conditions. For this purpose, in addition to weather data, additional parameters such as the vibration of the tower are included in the calculations.

Digital Twins for a sustainable industry 

The WIND IO project vividly demonstrates the potential of digitization and especially the concept of the Digital Twin. In addition, companies can use their data to simulate entire production and operating cycles. This makes it possible to minimize resource consumption, reduce energy consumption and at the same time coordinate production steps more effectively and optimize transport routes. Concepts such as the Digital Twin and data-intensive analysis methods are thus essential for a gentle and efficient industry.

Digital accessibility for everyone

Modern software should be without barriers. But what kind of barriers can software have and for whom? And how can software companies eliminate them? The general understanding of accessible software mostly refers to the fact that people with disabilities or other physical limitations can use it well. For example, software designed in this way reduces the risk of confusion between color representations on the monitor in the case of red-green vision impairment, or makes it easier for people with Parkinson’s disease to use the mouse. This is an important requirement that modern software should fulfill.

Thinking the approach that all users should not have any barriers in the way of operation consistently further, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone experiences limitations to a greater or lesser extent when using a computer. For example, even for users with normal vision, elements of the program interface can be difficult to recognize on a bad screen, the environment can be too noisy to concentrate, or the mouse cannot be operated due to a current hand injury. Accessibility therefore addresses everyone!

Accessibility as a standard

For consumer software, reducing or eliminating operating barriers has long been standard practice. For example, I can increase the font size on my iPhone or have texts read aloud to me. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) were established early on for the World Wide Web. As an international standard, they provide developers with guidelines for making websites accessible to as many people as possible. They have become the de facto standard for accessible user experiences and are even referenced in legislation on equality for people with disabilities.

Remove barriers – release forces

For me, following these standards does not only mean fulfilling my responsibility as a product designer. It also simply means a guaranteed improvement in product quality – for all users. After all, it’s not just users with special visual impairments who benefit from high-contrast displays or keyboard controls, to name just two examples. Entrepreneur and accessibility advocate Debrah Ruh put it succinctly: “Accessibility allows us to tap into everyone’s potential.” I think that fits perfectly with our claim at CONTACT: Energizing great minds.

Of describing and showing in product development

“I notice you don’t really understand what I’m talking about. Wait a minute, I’ll show you.” Often communication fails when people are forced to describe things instead of showing them. Because they are either out of reach or because they simply don’t exist in real life. Like products that are still in the development stage. That’s why designers are downright DIY experts. With a product idea in mind, they quickly build a prototype with cardboard and glue. In this way, they succeed in showing what is difficult to put into words. This is exactly what efficient product development processes need and can be achieved through deeper integration of 3D visualization functions into the PLM system.

A picture is worth a thousand words

The value added by images over pure text is something we take for granted these days in a multimedia world. On Instagram and elsewhere, text only underscores what has already been captured in the image. But how much of this self-evidence has arrived in the IT systems that support the work of manufacturing companies? In my perception, describing is still more important than showing: The majority of the screens contain characters, words, tables and sentences.

Since the spread of CAD systems, especially in PLM applications, there has been no shortage of images. Hardly any product is manufactured before it has been designed in advance as a (3D) image. The 3D model is a natural tool in product development and in times of increasing product individualization an ideal tool for communication around the product. From chairs to electric cars: across all industries, products can be individually configured online and viewed in 3D before they are ordered and produced.

Why does enterprise software still remain so text-heavy?

CAD software licenses are expensive. Companies therefore often only equip a few workstations with it. In addition, CAD software as proprietary file formats cannot be easily opened by other programs. Thus, access to 3D geometries remains limited to an exclusive club.

If this hurdle is overcome, for example with neutral 3D viewers, the question of how 3D geometry and text can best be combined with the operating UIs of the enterprise software still remains. Beyond the fanciful visions of the future concerning data handling with VR/AR à la Minority Report, there is still a lack of concepts in reality for combining information from 3D models and databases in a uniform operating pattern.

So, where do we go next?

The first step is to bring 3D geometries into the UI alongside the usual textual content. In addition to displaying and rotating, a basic function is the ability to navigate inside the model in order to view individual components in detail by selectively showing and hiding them. Functions such as entering, saving and sharing annotations on the 3D model are also helpful for effective communication within the team. Furthermore, additional Digital Mock Up (DMU) calculation functions can support certain decision-making processes. Such as a neighborhood search to analyze the impact of an engineering change. Or a model comparison to subsequently understand the scope of this change.

In the second step, geometric and textual information must be combined in the UI. This creates an integrated user interface that offers added value in terms of content. Moreover, how would it be if the 3D model in PLM applications no longer served as an illustration of the parts list but, conversely, the parts master data enriched the 3D geometries? Or if tables and textual hyperlinks are abolished and a real geometric or spatial navigation is available? Or if users can visually browse the parts inventory like in a warehouse instead of tracking down numbers in a list? Or, or, or.

We have become so accustomed to working with strings in information technology (I’m thinking of command lines, relational databases, hyperlinks and so on) that other operating patterns seem unthinkable. Here it is time to rethink and unleash the visual power of 3D geometry to communicate quickly and accurately in business processes.

In my German-language webcast on October 7, 2021, you will learn how to make 3D visualization and inspection functionality accessible to all PLM users throughout the product lifecycle and ensure seamless integration of geometric and PLM data – in one interface, without having to jump to expensive standalone viewers.