In recent years, game development technology has increasingly found its way into other industries, from in-car entertainment systems to manufacturing plant design.
Today, it is beginning to impact electronics product design, facilitating the visualization of digital twins and the creation of virtual product prototypes supported by real-time data collected by IoT devices.
A digital twin, the process of creating a digital replica of a real-world product or system and collecting and integrating real-time data sources into the virtual model, is not an idea news. The first digital twin is said to have been invented by NASA to save Apollo 13 astronauts. growth of 41.7% CAGR between 2021 and 2027, according to Research and Markets.
The growth of digital twins is driven by the huge time, cost, and performance benefits they offer, as well as increased access to real-time data via IoT sensors. They differ from digital replicas because they are much more than just accurate representations: digital twins continuously collect and process data from their real-world counterparts.
In practice, product designers can test new ideas with minimal cost and risk, discover problems earlier, better understand how different parts of the whole interact, or how an item interacts with other parts of a system. Virtual testing of a product’s performance in the real world, rather than the old laborious process of building new physical prototypes, can save development budget, improve iteration speed, speed time to market, and improve product quality.
Digital twins can also be used for predictive maintenance, balancing corrective maintenance (fixing a part once it fails) and preventive maintenance (fixing a part before it fails). Billions of IoT sensors collect data and feed it directly into the digital twin. Therefore, unusual behaviors or sudden increases in usage can be monitored and any issues resolved before they impact production.
Digital twins by market
There are many examples in the field across a wide range of industries, from automotive to manufacturing to aerospace, and there is a strong consortium of digital twins, a global ecosystem including industry, government and academia. It has an impressive list of members, including Dell, Lockheed Martin and Microsoft.
Automakers are using digital twins to build cost-effective prototypes. Static CAD models with limited dynamic views are transformed with real rendering. Crash tests can be simulated more effectively on different terrains. Manufacturers use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) for training and maintenance. With AR headsets, technicians can see the latest models of the latest product specifications right in front of their eyes while working.
Digital twins are used to predict and improve the performance of aerospace components. Digital twins can even help consumers experience a product – say, a luxury car or jet – before committing to a purchase. These actual or future examples are just the beginning of what is possible.
However, if there’s been a flaw with digital twins so far, it’s the difficulty of presenting information in a way that’s rich in context and easily visually understood. Until recently, most digital twin software was highly technical, complex, and engineering-driven. While these traditional tools have played a valuable role in the evolution of digital twins, they have had their limitations.
This is where game development engines come to the fore, providing much more realistic visualizations and making digital twins accessible to more contributors. Popular examples include Unity or Unreal Engine, but many others have long been used by game studios to create compelling and complex 2D or 3D renders.
Capable of supporting real-time interactive gameplay, game engines provide the perfect foundation for photo-realistic and immersive simulations of the real world.
Imagine using the visual impact of the software used to create Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty to support product development. High-quality animations provide teams with more than just dry data: they make the experience more immersive and realistic. This is something that some savvy manufacturers have already realized, and many more are beginning to look at the benefits of game engines.
For example, according to the Perforce 2021 State of Automotive Software Report, 50% of respondents said they would like to use game engines in the near future. Game engines would be used to train driver assistance systems with synthetic sensor data. Unreal Engine now includes digital twins for engineering, construction, and architecture as one of its core focus areas.
Across various industries, we hear of game developers being recruited into teams to support digital twins, supplementing the skills of existing employees.
In addition to game engines and IoT sensors, CAD or 3D modeling tools are also used to create these enhanced visual environments. Designers who create digital twins create software pipelines where CAD designs are exported and used as input to game engines. This pipeline is critical because integrating dissimilar software elements reduces the risk that the same changes are made twice in two separate tools. So if a change is made to a CAD design, it will be reflected seamlessly in the digital twin.
Another crucial element is version control, a type of software that has long been used in association with game engines, ensuring a “single source of truth” of all assets – code, art, audio files and more – across the entire development pipeline, with a clear view of what changed where, when, how and by whom. In electronics product design, multiple versions of the same digital twin can all be stored and restored to an earlier development stage if needed. Version control also provides an audit trail of the development process, useful for compliance purposes.
There are a few key considerations for game engine-based digital twins to be successful. Common mistakes include poorly stored data, trying to accomplish too much too quickly, insufficient testing, poor integration of the various tools involved, and lack of stakeholder buy-in.
It is essential to create a highly integrated and scalable software base that can accommodate large volumes of often very complex data from different sources. Creating internal standards to ensure all elements can communicate will help prevent problems down the line. Ensuring a process for collaboration and managing dependencies between teams and datasets is critical.
Since teams are often geographically dispersed and work remotely, this infrastructure must also support distributed development, giving individuals control of their own workspace while maintaining a centralized system and view of every iteration. Additionally, these contributors may use their own technology stack, so the version control system must be technology independent.
Iterate builds and test them often, automating processes as much as possible that don’t require manual intervention. From a data security perspective, the digital twin environment should ensure that only people who need specific data have access to it. Therefore, the storage or version control system must provide granular access to user, file type, system, and network.
Two final cultural points: as is always the case with any emerging technology field, communicating goals, setting expectations, and gaining stakeholder support early will make a huge difference in how a project is received in internal. Thus, if obstacles arise, senior management will be more motivated to seek a solution rather than abandon the idea. For the same reason, it makes sense to start small by choosing a small project with achievable goals and then build on that success.
Digital twins, along with game engines and the IoT, will be part of the bedrock of Industry 4.0, but many organizations are still in the early stages of the discovery and learning process. However, investing time now to learn more about this powerful trio is at the very least an interesting experience, and at most, a gateway to improved electronics development and product lifecycle management.
Author contact details: Brad Hart, Chief Technology Officer, Perforce Software