The concept of a Digital Twin in manufacturing was first introduced by Michael Grieves in 2002. However, with Industry 4.0 technologies including AI and IoT, what a digital twin is and the benefits it provides a manufacturer for the lifecycle of their products has greatly improved in both theory and application. For electronics manufacturers it is extremely important to visualize the entire process digitally and monitor quality, equipment utilization and productivity. The digital twin can substantially boost the ability of electronics manufacturers to better monitor their process performance and train/deploy their employees faster.

Figure 1- Source: Critical Manufacturing

A digital twin is a virtual replica of a physical system and duplicates all the information pertaining to the system, which allows for changes to be made either as a simulation, experiment, or as a part of execution in the digital system. When actions based in the digital form are repeated in the physical system it leads to enhanced results.

What has made digital twins more interesting now than ever is the rate at which information from a physical process can be captured and contextualised for a comparable digital system. AI and machine learning uses real-time data in the digital system to derive improvements and actions in the physical system while generating unprecedented levels of value and efficiency.

For the modern electronics assembly industry, a digital twin encompasses their entire production process. It goes beyond the design validation process and becomes a multi-faceted influencing factor. It improves the manufacturing process, product quality, and time to market for new products. It also enhances the ease of rolling out and monitoring new and existing facilities virtually through the set-up of a control room. With IoT sensors and equipment data being captured in real-time, digital twins enable real-time views, modification and control of existing processes; thereby enabling companies to fully leverage their AI and automation efforts. However, it is important to note that digital twins need a solid foundation to succeed and generate the benefits they are capable of.

Benefits of a digital twin

Recently McKinsey explored the possible benefits of digital twins in PLM and beyond, and how companies can go about implementing digital twins across the enterprise. It is estimated that digital twin technologies have the power to increase revenues by up to 10%, accelerate TTM by 50% and improve product quality by 25%. The digital twin industry as a whole is estimated to be growing by 35-40% annually in Europe alone, reaching 7 Billion Euros by 2025.
McKinsey claims that digital twins are already creating an impact beyond product design. Companies are using the technology across their entire manufacturing process, which goes beyond R&D to cover the entire length and breadth of their operation. The article states that digital twin use cases include engineering, production and service for products and that companies implement the same based on various considerations regarding their status quo, technology wise, and their ability to roll out digital twin related technologies.

Figure 2- Source: McKinsey & Company

McKinsey provides various examples of how digital twins have created real results for organizations that have implemented the concept across their entire operation, or just a facet of it. Instead of delving into individual cases and the benefits and results, we will establish a general idea of how digital twins specifically provide the advantages outlined for electronics manufacturers, SMT, packaging, product design and beyond.

Figure 3- Source: Critical Manufacturing & MESA

Taking into consideration that the digital twin replicates the manufacturing process and equipment while receiving all process data in real-time, the impact it can have on an electronics assembly process is limited only by the imagination of the process owners. The digital twin connects siloed manufacturing processes using a digital thread. The digital thread is continually enriched with contextualized, actionable information, which leads to continuous improvement when the data is applied across the physical process (see Figure 3).

When process owners simulate design related data and specifications on virtual systems and gauge how the process might manifest, it helps them to brainstorm, assess and validate design related inputs faster. This translates into virtual prototyping for faster product releases, with limited to no re-work, and gives them a clear competitive advantage. Being able to view all plants and lines in a single control room set up aligns manufacturing activities and optimizes standard operational flows. Imagine single iteration design and prototyping of complex assembly boards and products; yes, it is possible through a digital twin.

Within a given assembly plant, with the digital twin it is possible to monitor the transactional data, analyse it and prevent quality-related incidents, directly improving throughput and yield. Work instructions can be revised based on the current status being reflected by the digital twin and can be relayed directly to the equipment or to the operators using mobile devices. Using augmented reality users can execute instructions and see how the changes made manifest on the shopfloor.

With the ability to implement AR on the floor and through VR on the digital twin, employee training can be expedited without having to handle expensive tools and materials. Simulation-based training can ensure that the skills of current and new workers are efficiently enhanced and also regulatory compliance. Digital twins open an array of possibilities in terms of collaboration through remote access, which during the COVID-19 pandemic translates to the best utilization of available expertise irrespective of the talent’s physical location.

Digital twins use sensor data to run feature-based simulations for faster product design and service improvements based on actual market feedback. This means electronics manufacturers can introduce better products faster with a better chance of success with improvements based on real use cases.
There are many benefits of a digital twin, and it is critical for electronics manufacturers to understand that to leverage these benefits it has to be built on the right platform, which in most assembly plants is, the MES.

MES- The foundation for digital twins in electronics industry

MESA defines the MES as: a relational computer software application that 1) provides a real-time look at manufacturing operations and, 2) makes it possible to integrate the real-time data with other information systems, such as production planning and distributed control systems. Modern MES applications are platforms that establish the very basis of Industry 4.0 across a given manufacturing plant. They not only integrate enterprise applications with shop-floor level automation, they also capture equipment and IoT sensor data to provide edge computing and real-time decision making for process stakeholders.
In simpler terms, the MES acts as the digital thread integrating the production process and enterprise applications to drive actions that lead to better process execution and management. A core MES is a digital tool responsible for the successful execution and flawless orchestration of the process, which for all intents and purposes replicates a given process. The right MES is modular and scalable and can be modified to represent the current process provided. It has a proper equipment library and connectivity to run advanced scenarios in the natural extension of the digital twin application.

A Critical Manufacturing webinar explains what a digital twin means for manufacturing and how the MES is best suited for its implementation. The figures below illustrate the evolution of the digital twin from 2011 to present day. The improvements go beyond the 2-D to 3-D transition of the GUI and extend to the way MES provides more actionable intelligence through IoT and AI, and creates a more accurate representation of the process and products going through the process.

Figure 4- Source: Critical Manufacturing

Electronics manufacturers benefit immensely with the right MES as their digital twin. Visualizing processes, performing simulations, monitoring quality and maintaining optimum process performance has never been easier than with an MES based digital twin for electronics assembly plants.

The MES has always been the basis and foundation for digital twins as the application encompasses every aspect of a product’s development and subsequent execution. However, the choice of the MES itself is dependent on the success of a digital twin endeavour. Questions need to be asked, such as whether or not the application can scale to incorporate all aspects and features of the electronics manufacturing process and flow? Does the current MES provide the digital thread and feedback loop necessary for a digital twin, and is it truly IoT and AI enabled? Would the MES be able to integrate across various applications and provide true real-time connectivity? And lastly, does the application enable AR and VR to form the basis of simulation and improvement through digital twins?

The answers to these questions exist, tools like the Gartner Magic Quadrant can help you narrow down your MES search and choose a leader in your industry segment. Remember, for availing the true benefits of digital twins, choose the right MES.