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Time Machines, Digital Twins, and Crash Avatars: Welcome to the Industrial Metaverse

Manufacturing

A virtual production line designed by Nvidia and Siemens and its “first life” realization.

The concept of the metaverse has been around for some time, though it seems to stir much less public excitement than AI-backed online chat programs, despite being championed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg. To an extent, that is understandable: while chat programs are spectacular and entertaining with their ability to mimic human interaction, the metaverse is yet to produce groundbreaking novelty, at least for private users.

The evolution of digital tools for designing industrial equipment, AutoCAD, among others, has dramatically enhanced engineering. However, these cannot predict how the final product will operate in real life, much less in conjunction with other equipment.

A system capable of simulating a whole factory would save significant costs and time, as potential flaws could be identified before physical construction starts. In the case of a dysfunctional operation, the design could be reversed to a previous checkpoint, like the time machines in science fiction novels.

In fact, that technology already exists, and some do indeed call it a time machine, while others prefer the term industrial metaverse. In a recent article, Jan Burian, associate vice president of consulting company IDC describes the industrial metaverse “as a highly immersive future environment that blends the physical and digital to enable a shared sense of presence, interaction, and continuity across multiple spheres of operations, supply chain, and business.”

Another term often used is digital twin, the “virtual representation of a physical product, component, asset, or even process.” Large companies are already using this technology. BMW, for example, created a virtual twin of its production plant in Bavaria before building the physical facility, while Boeing uses a digital twin to design its airplanes.

The industrial metaverse requires significant processing capacities, as described in an article published by the MIT Technology Review.

“For mission-critical industrial applications, the metaverse will require low latency, massive machine communications, and high reliability, in addition to fast network speeds,” the article says.

Potential Risk

It should be noted there is a potential risk with the industrial metaverse, namely, an inclination to rely too much on it. As another article warns, “a pitfall to avoid is the over-reliance on technology that might not be able to adapt like humans if disruptions in the supply chain or other low-probability events happen.”

For now, this is not an imminent threat, as the technology is just starting to take off. Last year, Siemens and Nvidia, an American multinational technology company known for its computer video cards, partnered to develop immersive digital twins. Automakers BMW, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and software giants Google Cloud, Infosys, and Microsoft, are all researching the industrial metaverse. Indeed, such a project is already in development in Hungary.

As Tamás Jeránek, CEO of Siemens Hungary, puts it, “the metaverse is knocking at the doors of BMW in Debrecen.”

BMW has already started the construction of its bricks-and-mortar factory in Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, some 230 km east of Budapest. In January, the company announced that there had been no disruptions, and the training center is in the finishing phase.

According to the plans, the factory will start production in 2025, for which the company will need 1,500 employees. Currently, BMW is recruiting 400 people for 70 different roles. Siemens will implement its first industrial metaverse project here, at BMW Debrecen.

The automotive industry can benefit significantly from the digital twin technology in the metaverse, as Jeránek outlined in a recent article. Car crash tests, for example, are very expensive, and prototypes can be crashed only once. However, what we might call a digital crash avatar of the product can be used endlessly, even with changing parameters. Also, millions of test kilometers can be moved into the simulation space.

Of course, one question immediately arises: how can we be sure that the simulations are realistic and produce the same outputs? The technology has already been tested, Jeránek notes. The real-life crash tests produced precisely the same results as the much cheaper digital models.

Scaling Up

But the new technology can also be used at a larger scale, in designing cities, for example. In Berlin, it will be used to create a new district that, the planners say, will be 100% CO2 free.

The industrial metaverse will be an essential tool in the changing economic environment.

“When the insufficient labor force and the energy crisis, together with many other factors, endangers maintaining the level of industrial productivity, one of our most important tasks is to develop and implement technologies that require the minimum possible resources,” Jeránek writes.

This is the path BMW is following with its plant in Debrecen. As Milan Nedeljkovic, a board member at BMW AG, says, the new factory will exhibit the highest technology in the automotive industry in terms of flexibility, sustainability and digitalization.

Sustainability is indeed a core focus at BMW. Almost one-third of its cars are now produced of recycled and reused materials, so-called “secondary raw materials.” Some parts are made from recycled fishing nets.

The stated aim of the Bavarian-based automaker is to raise the amount of reused and recycled materials to 50% and to reduce carbon emissions to a minimum. The factory in Debrecen will be the first to eliminate completely the use of fossil energy sources during production. A large part of the necessary electricity will be produced on-site.

So, this is where we stand now, Jeránek concludes: “Technology is a link to the real world, in which we will be able to bring quick and efficient solutions to problems. It may seem sci-fi for now, but we are laying today the foundations of the industrial metaverse, with the utmost care, preparing the necessary bricks.”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of March 24, 2023.

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