Printed headline: Raising Twins
The early adolescence of an emerging technology is a rewarding yet trying time for those working to apply it.
The cycle of initial promise to realizing limitations through maturation and true usefulness of a technology is an increasingly well-trodden digital path for aerospace and defense (A&D) companies. The strategic focus of OEMs and others in the aftermarket segment has made MRO and services a significant recipient of new digital investments. Within this portfolio, perhaps no other capability demonstrates the promise and potential pitfalls of aftermarket transformation than the digital twin.
Because the phrase “digital twin” holds the inglorious distinction of meaning many things to different people, I will settle on a somewhat simplified definition: A digital twin is an electronic representation of an as-used product or facility and its associated hardware and software configuration. A&D companies are embracing twins to support new predictive and preventative maintenance solutions. By providing the twin with current configuration and utilization information, missions can be “flown” and maintenance requirements identified without using a drop of Jet A fuel. From predictive maintenance to spare parts management to modeling flight-hour contracts, the promise of digital twins is stirring multiple efforts to deploy proofs of concept.
These efforts have borne gifts: First, we are realizing the early promise of digital twins; second, we are learning what makes proofs of concept successful and more about what does not. The lessons of scaling digital twins to production closely follow those from scaling other digital investments. Accenture’s latest research shows A&D companies are scaling more than 55% of their digital proofs of concept to production. This is terrific stuff, but less terrific is that fewer than 20% of them do so successfully, and create lasting benefit to their business.
In the broader digital context, what makes a good digital twin? The first lesson we are learning is the need to stare down the “cool factor” and then look away. It is easy to be wowed by the technology. What is more compelling is the narrative of how the twin generates revenue, solves a business problem or improves customer experience.
Companies that scale digital twins well are moving beyond the glittery technology story and writing a compelling business story. The ability to articulate this story, communicate it and align on its importance matters. For the average digital program in A&D, achieving internal alignment can mean up to a 15% incremental return on digital investment. Those that do not manage this become one-and-done pilot projects.
Pulling the thread of avoiding technology for technology’s sake, successful digital twins have started in a measured fashion. They are focused on opportunities to create customer value without requiring much internal technical or cultural change. Such proofs of concept often incrementally implement new data architecture such as integrating product models to manufacturing or service data streams while also solving a business challenge like fleet planning or rotables modeling. Within 12-16 weeks of agile development, companies have shown that incremental changes can create measurable market returns. There is no better way to change minds and secure adoption of a digital twin.
Once this happens, there remains the task of raising the twin to maturity. Scaling a twin requires a commensurate scaling in the organization. This is not just a matter of gathering a merry band of IT professionals. It requires quite a bit more. Use cases must be prioritized by value, either internal or market-facing. Most important, executives must agree on priorities. A common, reusable architecture or set of standards must be agreed upon, lest multiple layers of plumbing be laid for each use case. Does this mean a fundamental rethink of the organization? It does. Those bringing digital twins to life have created teams to innovate, evaluate and develop use cases around them.
Aerospace companies that have successfully scaled digital twins have taken an approach that can be summarized as “to the twinner go the spoils.” They align digital twins to the areas of the business where they can create the greatest value. The supply chain, manufacturing and engineering are often first to see the benefits. As A&D companies continue to invest in digital twins, aftermarket organizations and the long-term value they create are ideally suited to become their best adoptive home.
Craig Gottlieb is a principal director in Accenture’s aerospace and defense practice, focused on innovation in aftermarket services.
The views expressed are not necessarily shared by Aviation Week.