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Virtual twins: An untapped resource to drive sustainable operations

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Virtual twins are a powerful, yet underused tool for accelerating sustainability. Source: Adobe Stock.

This article is sponsored by Dassault Systèmes.

I spent a total of five fantastic years with AIESEC, the world's largest student-run organization. Those years were just epic — the chance to lead teams, feeling that you're changing the world on a daily basis, and visiting over 40 countries. 

My last year there was as global chief information officer: I was responsible for enabling the operations of the 50,000-student organization via digital technology. It was an opportunity for me to help accelerate AIESEC's mission of fulfilling humankind's potential. During this time, I was also first exposed to the concept of sustainability by the renown economist and author of "The Blue Economy," Gunter Pauli. Since then, a focus on the connection between digital and how it can create a positive impact on the world has became imperative for my career.

During my master's studies, I delved more into this topic, looking at digital in the context of socio-technical systems. The need to embrace a systems view became clear to me, and I studied key concepts such as network or rebound effects, which are quite relevant when speaking about sustainability or circular economy principles. This is where my personal quest for matching digital technology with sustainable development began.

In 2015, there was a match; I joined Dassault Systèmes (3DS), an organization among Fortune’s Future 50 list of the largest software companies. Dassault develops software for 3D product design, simulation, manufacturing and more — harnessing the power of "virtual twins." 

3DS solutions are used in the design, engineering, simulation, manufacturing and data management of products in key industries such as high tech, transportation and mobility, aerospace and life-sciences. Indeed, they are leveraged to design and produce more than two-thirds of the world's semiconductors and one-half of all its innovative drugs and medical devices, on top of being used in the design and/or engineering of 90 percent of cars globally. 

If you consider that impact, you can conclude that 3DS has the potential to influence upwards of 10 percent of the global carbon footprint. This potential for impact is what really got me here.

The aforementioned set of digital capabilities is known as product lifecycle management (PLM). More recently, this field has evolved significantly alongside the rise of digital platforms. So-called virtual twin technologies leverage the foundational PLM to enable a lot more. For example, virtual twins can digitally depict a single product or a much more complex system such as a supply chain, a manufacturing facility, a city or even a human heart. 

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Virtual worlds enriched with modeling, simulation, optimization, collaboration and business process execution and performance empowers people to test infinite possibilities for innovation towards a sustainable future. Source: DELMIA Digital 3D Model Factory; https://www.inflow-tech.com/solutions/delmia/roles/.

As a result of a recent collaboration between Accenture and 3DS, a research paper was published, "Designing Disruption: The Critical Role of Virtual Twins in Accelerating Sustainability," to advance industry understanding of how virtual twins play a pivotal role in enabling and accelerating sustainability. A couple of key findings are:

  • In 2020, the global virtual twin market was estimated at just over $5.4 billion; it is projected to grow at a CAGR of 36 percent over the next five years. However, its current reach is limited, and the market has achieved only 10 percent adoption globally as this technology is not fully mature and is underused across many industries. Some of the most advanced adopters are EV manufacturers and healthcare laboratories. Indeed, 100 percent of the world's top EV manufacturers and 90 percent of the top drug and healthcare laboratories use virtual twin solutions.
  • The study shows the results of an in-depth analysis of five industry use cases (construction and cities, consumer packaged goods, transportation and mobility, life sciences and high tech). These virtual twin use cases alone can unlock more than 7.5 gigatons of CO2e emissions reductions through 2030 and $1.3 trillion of economic value.

DELMIA, the brand I represent, helps industries by connecting the virtual and real worlds of value networks to collaborate, model, optimize and perform in the ambit of manufacturing and operations. In the study done in collaboration with Accenture, two use cases that link virtual twins and sustainability are described:

Use Case 1: Optimization of material flows and waste valorization

Driving the concept of the circular economy forward requires organizations to be better informed and have the right information to improve the use of materials and identify waste streams that can be converted to resources and reused, whether internally or externally. 

To measure and improve resource productivity, dynamic, end-to-end visibility of material flows is fundamental. Although it is broadly established that less material-intensive sectors have higher rates of productivity by measuring material intensity at the macroeconomic level, only a few organizations are practicing this to inform their circular economy or sustainability strategies. 

This is where the benefits of virtual twin technologies shine. 

By virtue of their capacity to consolidate data from each stage of the product and production lifecycles, virtual twin technologies weave information together and analyze it to identify opportunities for improvement, track performance and inform decisions. They can be used to operationalize targets to become more material and resource efficient and drive financial benefits, including valorizing waste streams — this is particularly relevant for material- and energy-intensive businesses involved in the production of intermediate goods, such as the metals industry.

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Figure 1: Potential use case benefits — Optimization of material flows and waste valorization. Source: Designing disruption: The critical role of virtual twins in accelerating sustainability.

Use Case 2: Parts and material recovery optimization for decommissioned assets

Other key elements in delivering a more circular economy include parts and material recovery — which virtual twin technologies can help address via end-of-life management, helping to improve the efficiency and economics of decommissioning. 

Combined with asset operational data, 3D virtual twins and simulation technologies can be used to simulate every dismantling step before execution starts. This allows organizations to identify and define an optimal, safe decommissioning process. 

Additionally, these technologies provide enhanced visibility of raw materials, valuable parts and components — whether from a building, vehicle, ship, airplane or energy asset. 

Virtual twin solutions are collaborative by nature, enabling teams from design and engineering to decommissioning to work together in developing a process that yields the highest volumes and quality of resources. The ability to retrieve design, material and operational data and share it downstream helps reduce downcycling, meaning any material or recovered part can potentially be exchanged for its true value.

For example, there is an opportunity to improve metal recycling techniques for end-of-life vehicles as vehicles are typically built with over 60 types of metals, which end up downcycled and are functionally lost. For transportation assets, there is also a high potential to increase plastics circularity, likely to accelerate due to new European policy measures. 

Even out at sea, we are starting to plan for the decommissioning of offshore wind energy projects nearing the end of their 20- to 25-year lifecycles. Here, virtual twins can help us better plan and manage their decommissioning in advance.

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Figure 2: Potential use case benefits — Parts and material recovery optimization for decommissioned assets. Source: Designing disruption: The critical role of virtual twins in accelerating sustainability.

Conclusion

There are strong indications (I hope) that the world is headed towards a more sustainable trajectory from all aspects, and industry plays a crucial part in enabling and advancing this. 

There is enough evidence to suggest that virtual twin solutions will drive sustainability pathways for those ready to embrace them. Tapping into the potential of such technologies presents a wealth of essential economic opportunities to not only advance environmentally, but ultimately, to build operational excellence and organizational resiliency.

I encourage you to watch our webcast recording to explore more of the value of this underused technology, and how it can address your unique business needs while enabling more sustainable manufacturing and operations and the transition towards a more circular economy.

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