Digital twins are becoming ubiquitous in many areas of engineering [see ‘Can you trust your digital twin?‘ on November 23rd, 2016]. Although at the same time, the terminology is becoming blurred as digital shadows and digital models are treated as if they are synonymous with digital twins. A digital model is a digitised replica of physical entity which lacks any automatic data exchange between the entity and its replica. A digital shadow is the digital representation of a physical object with a one-way flow of information from the object to its representation. But a digital twin is a functional representation with a live feedback loop to its counterpart in the real-world. The feedback loop is based on a continuous update to the digital twin about the condition and performance of the physical entity based on data from sensors and on analysis from the digital twin about the performance of the physical entity. This enables a digital twin to provide a service to many stakeholders. For example, the users of a digital twin of an aircraft engine could include the manufacturer, the operator, the maintenance providers and the insurers. These capabilities imply digital twins are themselves becoming products which exist in a digital context that might connect many digital products thus forming an integrated digital environment. I wrote about integrated digital environments when they were a concept and the primary challenges were technical in nature [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on January 28th, 2015]. Many of these technical challenges have been resolved and the next set of challenges are economic and commercial ones associated with launching digital twins into global markets that lack adequate understanding, legislation, security, regulation or governance for digital products. In collaboration with my colleagues at the Virtual Engineering Centre, we have recently published a white paper, entitled ‘Transforming digital twins into digital products that thrive in the real world‘ that reviews these issues and identifies the need to establish digital contexts that embrace the social, economic and technical requirements for the appropriate use of digital twins [see ‘Digital twins could put at risk what it means to be human‘ on November 18th, 2020].
I have written in the past about my research on the development and use of digital twins. A digital twin is a functional representation in a virtual world of a real world entity that is continually updated with data from the real world [see ‘Fourth industrial revolution’ on July 4th, 2018 and also a short video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVS-AuSjpOQ]. I am working with others on developing an integrated digital nuclear environment from which digital twins of individual power stations could be spawned in parallel with the manufacture of their physical counterparts [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering’ on January 1st, 2015 and ‘Digitally-enabled regulatory environment for fusion power-plants’ on March 20th, 2019]. A couple of months ago, I wrote about the difficulty of capturing tacit knowledge in digital twins, which is knowledge that is generally not expressed but is retained in the minds of experts and is often essential to developing and operating complex engineering systems [see ‘Tacit hurdle to digital twins’ on August 26th, 2020]. The concept of tapping into someone’s mind to extract tacit knowledge brings us close to thinking about human digital twins which so far have been restricted to computational models of various parts of human anatomy and physiology. The idea of a digital twin of someone’s mind raises a myriad of philosophical and ethical issues. Whilst the purpose of a digital twin of the mind of an operator of a complex system might be to better predict and understand human-machine interactions, the opportunity to use the digital twin to advance techniques of personalisation will likely be too tempting to ignore. Personalisation is the tailoring of the digital world to respond to our personal needs, for instance using predictive algorithms to recommend what book you should read next or to suggest purchases to you. At the moment, personalisation is driven by data derived from the tracks you make in the digital world as you surf the internet, watch videos and make purchases. However, in the future, those predictive algorithms could be based on reading your mind, or at least its digital twin. We worry about loss of privacy at the moment, by which we probably mean the collation of vast amounts of data about our lives by unaccountable organisations, and it worries us because of the potential for manipulation of our lives without us being aware it is happening. Our free will is endangered by such manipulation but it might be lost entirely to a digital twin of our mind. To quote the philosopher Michael Lynch, you would be handing over ‘privileged access to your mental states’ and to some extent you would no longer be a unique being. We are long way from possessing the technology to realise a digital twin of human mind but the possibility is on the horizon.
Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.
Today is ‘This is Engineering’ day organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering to showcase what engineers and engineering really look like, celebrate our impact on the world and shift public perception of engineering towards an appreciation that engineers are a varied and diverse group of people who are critical to solving societal challenges. You can find out more at https://www.raeng.org.uk/events/online-events/this-is-engineering-day-2020. I have decided to contribute to ‘This is Engineering’ day by describing what I do on a typical working day as an engineer.
Last Wednesday was like many other working days during the pandemic. I got up about 7am went downstairs for breakfast in our kitchen and then climbed back upstairs to my home-office in the attic of our house in Liverpool [see ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau’ on April 8th, 2020]. I am lucky in that my home-office is quite separate from the living space in our house and it has a great view over the rooftops. I arrived there at about 7.45am, opened my laptop, deleted the junk email, and dealt with the emails that were urgent, interesting or could be replied to quickly. At around 8am, I closed my email and settled down to write the first draft of a proposal for funding to support our research on digital twins [see ‘Tacit hurdle to digital twins’ on August 26th, 2020]. I had organised a meeting earlier in the week with a group of collaborators and now I had the task of converting the ideas from our discussion into a coherent programme of research. Ninety caffeine-fuelled minutes later, I had to stop for a Google Meet call with a collaborator at Airbus in Toulouse during which we agreed the wording on a statement about the impact our recent research efforts. At 10am I joined a Skype call for a progress review with a PhD student on our dual PhD programme with National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, so we were joined by his supervisor in Taiwan where it was 6pm [see ‘Citizens of the World’ on November 27th, 2019]. The PhD student presented some very interesting results on evaluating the waviness of fibres in carbon-fibre composite materials using ultrasound measurements which he had performed in our laboratory in Liverpool. Despite the local lockdown in Liverpool due to the pandemic, research laboratories on our campus are open and operating at reduced occupancy to allow social distancing.
After the PhD progress meeting, I had a catch-up session with my personal assistant to discuss my schedule for the next couple of weeks before joining a MS-Teams meeting with a couple of colleagues to discuss the implications of our current work on computational modelling and possible future directions. The remaining hour up to my lunch break was occupied by a conference call with a university in India with whom we are exploring a potential partnership. I participated in my capacity as Dean of the School of Engineering and joined about twenty colleagues from both institutions discussing possible areas of collaboration in both research and teaching. Then it was back downstairs for a half-hour lunch break in the kitchen.
Following lunch, I continued in my role as Dean with a half-hour meeting with Early Career Academics in the School of Engineering followed by internal interviews for the directorship of one of our postgraduate research programmes. At 3.30pm, I was able to switch back to being a researcher and meet with a collaborator to discuss the prospects for extending our work on tracking synthetic nanoparticles into monitoring the motion of biological entities such as viruses and bacteria [see ‘Modelling from the cell through the individual to the host population’ on May 5th 2020]. Finally, as usual, I spent the last two to three hours of my working day replying to emails, following up on the day’s meetings and preparing for the following day. One email was a request for help from one of my PhD students working in the laboratory who needed a piece of equipment that had been stored in my office for safekeeping. So, I made the ten-minute walk to campus to get it for her which gave me the opportunity to talk face-to-face with one of the post-doctoral researchers in my group who is working on the DIMES project [see ‘Condition-monitoring using infra imaging‘ on June 17th, 2020]. After dinner, my wife and I walked down to the Albert Dock and along the river front to Princes Dock and back up to our house.
So that was my Engineering Day last Wednesday!
The DIMES project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 820951. The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
Tacit knowledge is traditionally defined as knowledge that is not explicit or that is difficult to express or transfer from someone else. This description of what it is not makes the definition itself tacit knowledge which is not very helpful. Management guides resolve this by giving examples, such as aesthetic sense, or innovation and leadership skills which are elusive skills that are hard to explain [see ‘Innovation out of chaos‘ on June 29th 2016 and ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2017]. In engineering, there are a series of skills that are hard to explain or teach, including creative problem-solving [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018], artful design [see ‘Skilled in ingenuity‘ on August 19th, 2015] and elegant modelling [see ‘Credibility is in the eye of the beholder‘ on April 20th, 2016]. In a university course we attempt to lay the foundations for this tacit engineering knowledge; however, much of it is gained in work through experience and becomes regarded by organisations as part of their intellectual assets – the core of their competitiveness and source of their sustainable technology advantage. In our work on integrated nuclear digital environments, from which digital twins can be spawned, we would like to capture both explicit and tacit knowledge about complex systems throughout their life cycle which will extend beyond the working lives of their designers, builders and operators. One of the potential advantages of digital twins is as a knowledge management system by duplicating the life of the physical system and thus allowing its safer and cheaper operation in the long-term as well as its eventual decommissioning. However, besides the very nature of tacit knowledge that makes its capture difficult, we are finding that its perceived value as an intellectual asset renders stakeholders reluctant to discuss it with us; never mind consider how it might be preserved as part of a digital twin. Research has shown that tacit knowledge sharing is influenced by environmental factors including national culture, leadership characteristics and social networks [Cai et al, 2020]. I suspect that all of these factors were present in the heyday of the UK civil nuclear power industry when it worked together to construct advanced and complex systems; however, it has not built a power station since 1995 and, at the moment, new power stations are cancelled more often than built, which has almost certainly depressed all of these factors. So, perhaps we should not be surprised by the difficulties encountered in establishing an integrated nuclear digital environment despite its importance for the future of the industry.
Reference: Cai, Y., Song, Y., Xiao, X. and Shi, W., 2020. The Effect of Social Capital on Tacit Knowledge-Sharing Intention: The Mediating Role of Employee Vigor. SAGE Open, 10(3), p.2158244020945722.