Digital twin technology and the future of warehouse visualization
Technology keeps getting smarter, faster and more complex every day. That means more things can go wrong … and that you have less time to get it right again. That goes for warehouses too. One effective way of meeting these challenges is to make a virtual 3D model of your warehouse, a so called digital twin, to simulate design, visualize problems and emulate solutions. But what is a digital twin really – and why isn’t everyone using it already?
The concept of digital twins has been around for almost two decades already, and in 2017 Gartner included digital twins as one of the top ten technology trends of that year. Still, in Gartner’s 2018 Supply Chain Technology User Wants and Needs Survey only 25% of respondents rated digital twins (DT) as a very important” or “extremely important” emerging technology, while 46% say it was “very unimportant.” According to Gartner one possible explanation is that many companies already use the technology without calling it a digital twin.
DIGITAL TWIN – DEFINITION AND USES
A digital twin is basically exactly what it sounds like. It is a virtual copy of a process, product or service, bridging the physical and digital worlds. One of the first users of digital twin technology was NASA, being forced to develop ways to test, operate, and maintain systems at a (very long) distance.
In a warehouse setting a digital twin can be used for visualization, simulation and emulation throughout the entire life-cycle of a warehouse system, from warehouse design and budgeting to operations, support, and retrofitting. To put it simple, it’s a way of doing things you need to do with your warehouse, without having to really do it. Here are three examples of how to use a digital twin in warehouse operations:
USE CASE 1: SIMULATION
A digital twin can be used to simulate what-if scenarios in your warehouse, for example before investing in an automated solution, designing a new warehouse space, or changing manual picking processes. This will make sure that the new solution will do its job and reach the efficiency levels expected for the predicted ROI.
When you have run your new solution for some time, your operation may change. Will your solution still work? By replaying some order data in an emulated test system you can simulate the effect of your changed processes without real equipment and staff. This way you can test new/changed software and get an understanding of whether it will work in reality and what effects it might have on warehouse capacity.
USE CASE 2: VISUALIZATION
When you have installed your solution you need a tool to visualize processes and warehouse flows. This can be split in two parts:
• Mechanical/equipment status
• Process status
For mechanical and equipment status, the automation supplier usually has a tool for this. However, this is then monitoring whether all equipment is online and usable, possibly with the addition of some basic information about which pallet number is being transported on which position in the layout.
If a pallet gets stuck somewhere in the warehouse, how do you visualize whether this pallet is important to use as replenishment, needed for an urgent shipment, etc.? To understand this and get the full picture, you need data from the WMS layer integrated in your visualization tool.
USE CASE 3: EMULATION
When you have decided on the technical solution including architecture and software, the implementation phase of the project starts. In this phase the digital twin can be used to:
• Test the solution stepwise (including multiple layers in the process)
• Get familiar with the solution before you see it in operation
• Train your operators in the system solution before it goes live
• As you get closer to the ready solution, test and simulate error handling
The more things you can test and prepare before the commissioning and go live phase the better, and the smoother the startup will be. Focus can then be more put into change management and learning to understand and make use of the new solution.
In their report Innovation Insight for Digital Twins in Warehousing Gartner predicts that by 2022, 25% of leading supply chain organizations will have launched explicit digital twin initiatives for improving warehouse efficiency. They also state that today most companies would prefer using digital twin technology, not as a stand-alone solution but as a part of their WMS.
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