At a recent panel discussion, industry leaders revealed not only the unrivaled value of virtual models—but also their huge bottom-line
While social media giants and Web3 true believers struggle to convince consumers why they should buy digital avatars and virtual real estate, a different demographic—CEOs—are racing to embrace the metaverse. Rather than hosting raves or playing games, they see immersive 3D environments as a new medium for collaboration and innovation in manufacturing in a future of remote work and distributed operations. Call it the “industrial metaverse.”
The building blocks of the industrial metaverse are “digital twins”—real-time, continuously updated virtual representations of real-world products and processes such as a factory floor or new electric vehicle on the digital drawing board. Grounded in the real-world rather than the fantastical, digital twins promise to become the interface for sensor data arriving from the internet of things, combined with AI analytics and human monitoring. Companies are already using them to model, predict, and improve operations from anywhere in the world using virtual ones—and the payoff can be huge.
“With a digital twin, we don’t have to build prototypes to see how things will work,” said Barbara Humpton, president and CEO of Siemens USA. “We can experiment using the laws of physics before making decisions about what we want to build—which for an auto manufacturer can mean designing a vehicle 50% faster.” Humpton’s remarks were made as part of a panel on the industrial metaverse hosted by Fast Company in partnership with Siemens. She was joined by Richard Kerris, head of developer relations at Nvidia—which offers its “Omniverse” development platform to partners such as Siemens—and Michael Campbell, chief product officer at Bentley Systems. Their session was introduced with a fireside chat with Cathy Hackl, chief metaverse officer at Journey and author of Into the Metaverse.
The value of digital twins is tied to their fidelity. It’s not enough to simulate a photo-realistic BMW 3 Series, for instance, without linking every part to its real-world analogue and the supply chain girding it. Only then is it truly a twin, mirroring changes to either. These tweaks can yield critical insights from enormously complex systems—such as how swapping out one set of nuts-and-bolts for another might lead to a supply chain bottleneck or similarly unintended consequence. “When you have a true-to-reality digital twin,” Kerris said, “you can decide where and how parts arrive before committing to anything in the real world. And this is saving BMW 30% in production costs when it’s time to change a model on the line.”
Other organizations such as Bentley Systems, which operates digital twins of physical infrastructure such as wind farms and water mains on behalf of clients, are using them to predict potentially costly failures or service interruptions before they happen. In such instances, AI and other analytics are combined with real-world data to render alarms and warnings in the metaverse. “We’re using AI in the metaverse to identify cracks in a dam or issues with a bridge thanks to its rich, 3D immersion,” Campbell said. “It’s really had a profound impact on how infrastructure, engineering, and operations are done.”
Belying its name, the industrial metaverse isn’t only for professionals, either. Prior to the panel, metaverse expert Cathy Hackl noted how New York and London have partnered with Minecraft (widely seen as a sort of proto-metaverse) to help crowdsource visions of each city’s future. “You can see a spectrum ranging from incorporating younger generations into city planning at one end and using digital twins to monitor traffic patterns and safety at the other,” Hackl said.
A METAVERSE OF METAVERSES
Realizing the full potential of digital twins will depend on widespread adoption of open standards and data, many of which are just now being developed. That’s because “the metaverse” will actually be comprised of many metaverses—some public, some private, some corporate—just as the internet itself is a network of networks. Underlying them all will be graphics standards including Universal Scene Description (USD)—originally developed by Pixar and since made open source—as well as standards for interoperability being hammered out by such groups as the Metaverse Standards Forum and Open Metaverse Alliance, with support from companies like Nvidia.
“You can’t do this in a walled garden,” Kerris said. “We’ve learned that lesson many times—it doesn’t work. You’ve got to be open, and then people can advance with new tools and technologies built on top of that.”
To that end, Nvidia has unveiled Omniverse—its software platform for building digital twins and metaverses—while Siemens has launched its own Xcelerator platform, recruiting more than 80 customers and partners to this ecosystem to help flesh out new standards and offer services. Both efforts highlight a unique feature of the metaverse: the ability to instantly summon collaborators from anywhere on the planet, regardless of their affiliation or location.
“It can be time-consuming to bring together engineers with different domain expertise,” Humpton explained. “But in the industrial metaverse, they can click into a meeting inside a virtual wind tunnel, observe simulations, and improve the design together.” Down the road, this has massive implications for how, where, and when work is down—and where things are made.
“Imagine a world in which we have microfactories around the world, with which we can seamlessly share data instead of stuff so that we are making things closer to the point of consumption,” Humpton offered. It’s a future that raises the question, Which is the real world, and which is the twin? And the answer, of course, is both.