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Digital Twins: Not your father's BMS OR SCADA System

In our first blog on digital twins, we said they are digital replicas of physical objects, systems, processes, and places. For example, a regional water/wastewater utility could be interested in having digital twins built of its pumps; its pumping stations; the process occurring in one of its water-treatment plants; and the sites where it has and/or is thinking of putting reservoirs. 

From water and wastewater systems to factories, many things that digital twins virtually replicate are controlled by supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Digital twins are also being used to provide virtual replicas of buildings, which are controlled by systems called building management systems (BMS) or building automation systems (BAS).

But while SCADA systems and BMS can provide information to digital twins, they are not digital twins themselves, much as a car’s dashboard and controls could provide information to a digital twin of a car but are not one themselves.

We’ll elaborate on how digital twins differ from SCADA and building management systems below. And if you want to read a little more on the evolution of SCADA and building management systems, we’ve posted some information on that here.

SCADA vs. Digital Twins

SCADA systems do exactly what their name says — provide supervisory control to and acquire data from the equipment they’re managing, which, regardless of whether it’s geographically spread out or in one building, is being used collectively to do such things as treat drinking water or wastewater; generate, transmit and distribute electricity; and run factories. As their widespread use indicates, SCADA systems are very successful at what they do, but they are different from digital twins.

Consider how a SCADA system enables equipment monitoring. Take a piece of equipment on a factory floor that becomes inefficient or breaks down when it runs too hot or cold, or at too high or low of a pressure. A SCADA system keeps it within its optimal temperature and pressure ranges by allowing someone to set their parameters. When the readings go outside the parameters, the system generates an alert and/or shuts down the equipment.

A digital twin could do much more, in part because it could access more data, but also because it could be equipped with machine learning and/or artificial intelligence. In the previous example, a digital twin of the piece of the equipment could be constructed and programmed to look for patterns in data fed to it from sensors in the equipment. That could enable it to spot patterns that mean the equipment needs a specific type of maintenance performed on it to prevent it from having a problem. Additionally, if the digital twin were being updated with data from other pieces of the same equipment in other factories, it could gain enough knowledge to predict when the equipment should undergo that type of maintenance before it even generates the data pattern that usually precedes a problem.

Smart factories and Industry 4.0

While SCADA systems can supply their data to digital twins, their underlying technology isn’t designed to process the amount of data needed to perform the type of predictive maintenance described in the last paragraph. As a result, the sensors within the equipment in the example mentioned above would communicate to the digital twin using internet of things (IoT) technology, or, as it’s called when it’s deployed for industrial applications, industrial internet of things (IIoT) technology. That means that if manufacturers want to advance their operations to the phase of automation beyond that allowed by SCADA systems, they have to roll out IIoT technology on top of their SCADA systems.

As the advent of the digital technology that made SCADA systems possible was considered the third industrial revolution and therefore dubbed Industry 3.0, the deployment of IIoT technology helps make possible what is considered to be the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0. Its full development in manufacturing would result in the smart factory, in which sensors, IoT technology, cloud computing and big data analytics would enable the continuous collection and sharing of data to proactively deal with potential problems and improve processes in everything from individual machines to the entire plant.

Digital twins will play a big role in Industry 4.0, which, like them, won’t be confined to the manufacturing sector, but instead will spread digital intelligence to other industries that use SCADA systems, such as the electric power industry. There, its end result would be the smart grid, where everything from generating equipment to transmission and distribution grids and their components would act in concert to respond to changes in demand and, to the extent possible, to reduce the number and length of outages caused by equipment failure, people driving into poles, storms and other occurrences.

BMS and Smart Buildings

Buildings are also expected to get smart. And just as SCADA systems will play a role in the development of smart factories and grids, building management systems will be central to the development of smart buildings.

BMS were initially developed to manage heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Eventually, however, their technology evolved to the point that it could run multiple systems besides HVAC, such as lighting, elevator and escalator, security, fire safety and building access.

In the last decade, internet of things (IoT) technology has made integration of building subsystems even easier, allowed BMS to be managed remotely from such devices as laptop computers and smartphones, and given rise to building information management, which enables BMS technology to be incorporated into a building’s design. IoT technology also makes smart building possible. In it, sensors, software, and connectivity are used to monitor activity, spot usage patterns and generate insights about how to manage the building to respond to them, or, in some cases, respond to them automatically. An example of an automatic response would be an adjustment to the outside air intake according to the amount of carbon dioxide in the building.

Even in a smart building, however, the building management system is not a digital twin. The BMS controls the building, but the digital twin can be a repository of information about the building that is updated in real time, making it easier to do everything from performing predictive maintenance on the building’s equipment and systems to remotely diagnosing problems with them. Digital twins also can be used to model the effects of changes being considered to a building and its systems and to enable owners of multiple properties to more accurately replicate things that are effective in one of their buildings across all of them.

As you can see, the capabilities of digital twins are being put to different uses in different industries. In our remaining blogs on digital twins, we will show what some of the industries our clients are in are doing with digital twin technology.


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