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.

Smart products have their price

IoT failures were the subject of my previous blog post, and what particularly surprised was a “Smoke detector with integrated microphone that allows monitoring in living rooms” that a well-known manufacturer launched on the market. The question of whether this is really a design flaw or whether we don’t have to put up with it for the comfort of smart products resulted in really interesting, sometimes controversial discussions. One question that emerged is not new, but the trade-off generally concerns users of smart devices:

How many and which kind of private data do I disclose for smart comfort?

In the case of the smoke detector, the advantages are obvious: the networking of the smoke detectors in the house offers greater safety in case of fire. If one detector is triggered, all other smoke detectors are informed and the alarm sounds throughout the house. In addition, the alarm can be forwarded, for example to a mobile phone, so that users are informed at all times. This functionality, does not require a microphone that allows monitoring. However, the high-resolution microphone is required if the smoke detector is to be used in addition to voice control for a “smart home”.

Advantage: Then I only have one device on the ceiling: smoke detector with voice control
Disadvantage: I need a smoke detector in every room, but there are rooms where I don’t want any voice control elements to listen.

Maybe during design of the smoke detector this has not been taken into account or simply an existing circuit design was reused. Here it becomes clear that for the development of smart products it is important to look at the whole package from the user’s point of view:

How should a smart product behave, what is technically possible and what should it not be able to do?

For some products it is not clear whether it’s a useful and safe product, like e.g. a jogging stroller that drives autonomously in front of the running track. Is autonomous driving safer than the person holding the stroller? Because he too could stumble and the stroller could roll onto a road …

Furthermore, the Internet of Things and the ongoing digitalization of different areas of life also offer the opportunity to develop sustainable products and solutions. I would like to drive an electric car whose route planner calculates the electric filling stations needed on the way and suggests filling up at a suitable time, naturally taking waiting times into account. Or, in general, smart home applications that save energy and offer greater safety.

Very interesting are also the possibilities in the industrial area, which can be reached by the use of digital twins of plants or machines: Operating states can be recorded at a glance and the machine can be controlled via apps. Algorithms calculate optimal resource allocations, bottlenecks can be detected, and real-time control becomes possible.

The exciting challenge I see in the design of IoT products is the interaction between hardware and software. What possibilities there are to design sustainable and sophisticated products and to optimize processes, if the overall system is considered! Complexity is a big challenge for designer and  developer.  And in addition verification, testing and validation of a solution are required to make sure, that products and systems behave as required.

IoT failures and trust in technology

At the beginning of April this year I attended the building IoT in Cologne. At the conference, which was organized by heise developer, iX and d.punkt publishing house, everything revolved around applications for the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 in lectures and an exhibition. Together with my colleague Yang Zhong, I presented modern user experience concepts (UX) for IoT solutions in a lecture.

At the end of our presentation, which showed a user’s work processes, from the data acquisition of a real “Thing” to the visualization of live data in the dashboard using a Digital Twin, there was a very stimulating discussion. Two points were particularly interesting here:

  • In many application areas, the topic of customer journeys is high on the agenda – which confirms the current trend.  
  • It is essential to develop software for users – which was also a consensus.

The evening was dedicated to Industrial IoT. As a moderator, I hosted a discussion with representatives from various enterprises and software companies, such as Miele, Dürr Dental, Codecentric or akquinet. An intensive discussion around the predominant topics of the industry 4.0 took place here. In addition to the choice of the control electronics or the wireless standard, this also includes questions as to whether an IoT solution should be operated in a cloud. The reasons for solutions in a cloud are of course the convenience and the relatively efficient and simple scalability with regard to the number of “things” to be managed. On the other hand, managing the software on your own servers (on-premise) means that confidential product or customer data really won’t leave your premises. The discussion has confirmed my assessment that both approaches have their advantages in practice and are applied accordingly.

One of my personal highlights at this year’s building IoT was a negative hit list of IoT products, so-called IoT failures: products that have massive security gaps, such as open data interfaces. Some “classic” vulnerabilities were already known, such as unaltered standard passwords that allow data misuse. Others gaps really surprised me: such as a smoke detector of a well-known brand, which is already equipped with a microphone (?!) as standard, which in turn allows unwanted monitoring in living rooms.

Why is there a microphone in a smoke detector?  We can’t say that for sure, at least it’s not in the customer’s interest and causes a massive loss of trust in technology. And that is precisely the point: acceptance of new technologies requires trust. And this is becoming more and more important with increasing digitalization.