Digital twins have become one of the fastest-growing Industry 4.0 concepts. Serving as virtual replicas of real-world objects, systems or processes, digital twins offer manufacturers unprecedented ways to improve performance and efficiency. In 2020, Pipelife started the rollout of digital twins at its production units. Two years later, we talk with Pipelife's production experts about the key benefits this technology has brought to customers, the environment, and the future potential of digital twins.
A digital twin is the representation of a real-world physical system in the digital world. When applied to production lines, digital twins enable collecting crucial performance- and operation data and detecting areas that require optimization.
Making hundreds of data points available, digital twins spur improvements in numerous production areas — from simulation and testing to monitoring, decision-making and maintenance.
The operational data collected through digital twins provide valuable information to engineers and designers on how to improve production processes on a particular line or even in a whole plant. In turn, customers benefit from even more consistent and reliable product quality and reduced delivery times.
"Among customers, Pipelife is known for supplying top-quality piping solutions. In cases of doubt, we scrap the product rather than send it off to the customer," states Filipp Pühringer, Head of Industry 4.0 at Pipelife. "However, the data we can obtain with digital twins gives us a much deeper understanding of our production processes. We now waste less material and have more predictable delivery times while having the same high quality our customers expect from us."
Another customer benefit driven forward by digital twins is increased product traceability. Some Pipelife's plants in the Nordics are already using so-called handling unit numbers — each and every product pallet receives a unique identifier that allows tracking it.
Furthermore, every extracted Pipelife product features a production time stamp, allowing tracing the specific conditions under which it has been produced.
"In future, the time stamp will point us to more data. It will put us into the position to trace down the processing conditions on a minute level, providing additional assurance to our customers," says Pühringer.
Digital twin technology also allows digitalized production planning, scheduling and monitoring. These steps are crucial when it comes to accelerating production speed and reducing order-to-delivery time.
"Thanks to implementing digital twins on our production lines, we have benefited from improved planning accuracy," says Michael Gorski, Production Planning and Control Manager at Pipelife Austria. "We can now provide more precise delivery dates to our customers, which in turn helps them manage their projects in a more efficient way."
Apart from improving production efficiency, digital twins offer data transparency in measuring, reporting and assessing the environmental footprint. Some advocates claim that the technology could contribute to a significant reduction in global CO2 emissions.
Pipelife has always prioritized sustainability, focusing on meeting and exceeding the sustainability goals defined by the UN, the EU, and the group's self-imposed targets. At the same time, Industry 4.0 offers new opportunities for optimizing production performance and reducing errors, thus saving energy and raw materials.
"Digital twins reveal areas for improvement and what we can do to further reduce scrap and waste; what we can do to further reduce our energy consumption. We are able to see, for example, the scrap amount on station level and on product level and identify the causes," says Pühringer, "Our production managers are all trained in using the data from the lines to improve the production processes sustainably."
Pipelife launched its first digital twin at the Haparanda plant in Finland in 2020. Since then, digital twins have been set up at 10 plants and on more than 200 production lines. The technology allows local teams to obtain highly reliable data from lines and, with help of automatic planning tools, use this data to optimize production processes.
Pipelife Poland started using digital twins at their injection molding unit in Kartoszyno in November 2021.
"We have two large-scale injection molding departments where 50 machines work at the same time; therefore, using an advanced planning program is crucial," states Andrzej Polański, Planning and Logistics Manager at Pipelife Poland. "We use planning software in combination with the digital twins. Depending on the mold model parameters, as well as the availability of machines, tools and staff, the program suggests the optimal line and production settings, allowing us to achieve high production efficiency and provide accurate delivery dates to customers."
Pipelife's digital twin rollout is expected to be completed by the end of 2024, implementing the technology at all plants. However, setting up digital twins groupwide is just a start, opening doors for new possibilities when it comes to data-driven process improvement and decision making.
"With the information captured through a digital twin, we can start answering "what if" questions, predicting the future based on real-time information," explains Pühringer. "For example, in the future, we are likely to have artificial intelligence trained to propose which production parameters must be adjusted for optimal performance even before the process starts. So, instead of being reactive, we will be able to act proactively. That's what industry 4.0 is all about."
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