Continual advancements in the logistics industry have created new opportunities for disruption, but one of the most intriguing comes in the form of digital twin technology. If you haven’t yet heard about this innovation, there is no doubt it will be spoken about as one of the most popular logistics trends of 2020.
If you’re not already familiar with the concept, let us explain: Traditional computer modeling of parts and machines doesn’t currently take into account the way in which parts wear out and are replaced; how fatigue accumulates within different structures, or how often owners make modifications to adapt to their changing needs. However, the advent of digital twins technology is changing this process drastically: Parts and structures that were once inaccessible by computer models are now able to be included in the digital world, allowing us to engage with the digital model of a physical object or part just like we would with their physical counterparts. This means that any changes made to the physical object are now also reflected in the digital model — something that was never possible in this manner until now.
Digital twins first became a public concept in 2002 when it was introduced by Dr. Michael Grieves at the University of Michigan; however, the actual pairing technology dates back as far as the 1960s when NASA used it as a way to operate and repair their systems — even when those systems were as far away as roaming the galaxy. NASA would create mirroring systems and ensure they knew how to repair their machinery from Earth before sending the systems out to space. This precursor to digital twins is in fact what allowed NASA’s engineers and astronauts to rescue the Apollo 13 mission! However, these mirroring technologies were just the beginning of the digital twin concept as we know it today. Now, armed with machine learning, artificial intelligence, and IoT data and devices, digital twins have evolved to an entirely new level of potential.
Across a multitude of industries, digital twins are being developed for a wide variety of purposes. A study released by International Data Corp. found that digital twins can also be leveraged for management purposes. This is because digital twins offer “clarity of communication; rapid collaboration; holistic visibility…and closer collaboration with customers,” according to the study. Meanwhile, enterprise technology companies are using their capabilities for artificial intelligence and cloud computing to create digital twin solutions for the rest of the world. Industrial automation giants like GE and Siemens are using it to develop industrial machinery and services, and every industry can use the technology for product development and management with new insights.
“The end goal of the digital twin technology in Logistics is to achieve an unprecedented level of insight and visibility of the past, current and future state of a subject – which can be anything from parcels and packages to the global logistics networks.”
Already, there is a wide array of potential use cases for digital twins within the logistics industry. For example, with shipments and parcel deliveries, digital twins can be used to collect product and packaging data and use that information to identify potential weaknesses and recurring trends to improve future operations. Warehouses and facilities can also use the technology to create accurate 3D models of their centers and experiment with layout changes or the introduction of new equipment to see their impact, risk-free. Furthermore, logistics hubs can use digital twins to test out different operations scenarios and thus increase efficiency. Logistics can also conduct digital tests of products and processes before physically running them.
In addition to those examples, delivery networks can use the technology to provide real-time information that will improve delivery times and further aid autonomous vehicles in their routes. As we will discover later on in this article, the potential of these use cases (and many more) will have wide implications for the logistics industry. With so many promising use cases in and out of logistics and a whole array of technologies available to back them up, industry researchers expect the digital twins market to grow 38% up to USD$26 billion by 2025.
While the technology hasn’t been applied widely in the logistics industry quite yet, it’s bound to grow rapidly soon. Let’s take a look at some of the most promising applications for digital twins in logistics in the next few years:
Digital Twin Shipments and Packaging
The growth of e-commerce has exploded over the past decade to become a $3.5 trillion USD market. However, a direct consequence of that growth has been an increase in waste and inefficiency — something that today’s consumers want no part of. So as more companies look for ways to make their operations more efficient and sustainable, digital twin technology may be the answer that will solve these problems.
Packaging materials have the opportunity to be revolutionized through digital twins. Companies are beginning to experiment with new types of eco-friendly packaging materials, including compostable plastics, recycled materials, and biodegradable packagings like mushrooms and even fish waste. By using digital twins of the materials, companies can model each material’s behavior underweight capacities, different temperatures, vibrations, and shock loads experienced in transit.
Not only can digital twins improve how companies package their materials and sustainability, but combining that product and packaging data can also help companies improve capabilities through automation. For example, digital twins can be used to automate packaging selection and strategies to protect products and enhance usage.
IoT sensors are quickly being adopted in the logistics industry. Combining the data collected by those sensors with digital twins of shipments could allow this data to be used in new ways. For example, if a digital model includes the thermal insulation and shock-absorbing characteristics of the packaging itself, companies can experiment with different conditions on the digital model with the data collected by the external sensors. This capability will enable shippers to gain new insights into the conditions of each shipment and thus optimize them.
Container Digital Twins
Creating digital twins of shipping containers can also give shipping companies new visibility into their asset operations. The condition of the containers can be inspected with 3D photographic technologies, which can identify damages such as cracks and dents. As the following step, this data could be combined with historical data on the container’s movement to create a Digital Twin that supports the decisions about when this container should be used, repaired, or retired. Furthermore, aggregating such information about the whole fleet of containers could potentially help owners to make data-driven decisions about fleet sizing and empty repositioning.
One of the crucial aspects of the shipping container digital twin development is the advanced usage of IoT. A great example of that is the Port of Rotterdam initiative Container 42. The container continuously records its status and location, including climate conditions inside and outside (humidity and temperature), the closing or opening of the container, vibrations, slope, position, sound, and air pollution. Container 42 also houses a variety of cameras that take time-lapse images or start recording during specific events (e.g. when the container is opened). And finally, Container 42 also carries a Tesla scale model (the Tesla 42) equipped with sensors to measure whether it moves inside during the journey, and if so, why.
Digital Twins of Warehouse and Distribution Centers
Digital twins in logistics are also creating new opportunities for companies to reexamine their properties – warehouse and distribution centers, from their physical layouts to their procedures. When companies create an exact digital model of their warehouse layout, they can experiment and simulate how the new designs could enhance their activity with no risk to their actual current operations. For example, DHL partnered with food packaging manufacturer TetraPak to replicate all activities and machinery in a digital twin of one of their warehouses, which then allowed them to analyze the movement of packages and functionality of machinery to improve productivity.
And thanks to recent advancements in warehouse technologies such as automated robots, goods-to-person picking, and counting systems, and automated storage and retrieval equipment, more companies can combine the data that comes from these systems with their digital twin models. In the end, this will give companies the tools it needs to create improved physical warehouse layouts while increasing worker productivity.
Digital Twins of Logistics Infrastructure and the Supply Chain
Apart from being able to model specific physical things such as assets and distribution centers, digital twins can also be used to transform entire processes within the logistics infrastructure and the supply chain. One of the logistics industry’s biggest issues has always been the fact that it relies on data from multiple parties at any given time in order to complete a shipment from start to finish. Slow responses, incomplete data from third parties, and manual processes have all led to major inefficiencies within the logistics industry — which up until now, have had a large influence on overall processes.
The solution may have arrived in the form of digital twin models of supply chain processes. Modeling a supply chain would create a level of security never seen before, as businesses could begin to offer third parties and partners the deep insights necessary to make improvements from top to bottom, without risking any partner’s data or security. Using a digital twin, each partner could input their own data and pinpoint bottlenecks at each step. This is especially useful for complex hubs like airports and shipping ports, which involve countless moving parts (and partners) to create a smooth and efficient operation. Some pilot programs to create digital twins of these hubs are already underway; for example, the Singapore Port Authority is working with several partners in an attempt to develop a complete digital twin of the country’s new mega-hub for container shipping. If all goes well with the pilot, it wouldn’t be surprising to see several similar hubs quickly follow in Singapore’s footsteps.
Digital Twins of Global Networks
Imagine that you could create a digital twin of your entire network — not just assets, parts, and warehouse and distribution centers, but a full map of every single part and place involved in your logistics operations. Imagine the opportunities this type of visibility would bring to your organization — surely, this type of comprehensive digital twin of a global network is simply a pipe dream. Yet, some researchers say that this dream may not be too far away, thanks to the development of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.
As the autonomous vehicle industry continues to gain steam, the detailed mapping being created to support AVs will also be increasingly beneficial for the overall logistics industry. As more detailed digital, satellite and aerial maps become available for mainstream use, logistics companies can use it to optimize their global networks by using rich data on customer locations, demand patterns, and travel times to plan distribution routes and inventory storage locations. As DHL researchers noted, this all-encompassing digital twin model is probably several years away from becoming a reality — but the possibility is exciting to logistics professionals all the same.
While the concept of digital models has existed for decades, their potential has previously been hindered by the lack of technology available to truly empower them. Now that we are armed with solutions and technologies like IoT devices, big data and cloud computing, AI, augmented reality, and virtual reality, digital twins can finally meet their full potential.
Digital twins, if truly embraced by logistics organizations, will usher in a completely new era for the entire industry: Warehouses and distribution centers will be optimized and worker productivity will increase; assets and parts will be operated more sustainably; manufacturing itself will become faster and more flexible; the supply chain will have more visibility and insights than ever before; the list goes on and on. The only question remaining is, how long will it take for logistics professionals to adopt digital twins in their own operations?