Welcome back to Check-in and we're kicking off series two with the timely topic of 'digital twins'. As you'll no doubt be aware, discussions and actions surrounding digital twins have been gathering pace in plenty of other sectors, so it’s perhaps unsurprising to hear this topic surfacing in the aviation industry.
To help us get a better understanding of digital twins and how they can be useful in our industry, we're delighted to be joined for today's podcast by Vanderlande expert Michelle Mack.
A – Hello there, and welcome back to Check-in… the Vanderlande airports podcast.
If you’re re-joining us, I do hope that you’ve enjoyed all the episodes so far.
In this edition, we’re heading down a more conceptual path and turning our attention to ‘digital twins’.
Discussions about digital twins have been gathering pace in other sectors, so it’s not surprising to hear this topic surfacing in the aviation industry.
To help us get a better understanding of digital twins and how they can be useful, I’m delighted to be joined by Vanderlande’s Michelle Mack.
So, let’s go ahead and collect Michelle from our virtual departures lounge…
Michelle, hello, thanks for being with us on Check-in today.
M – Yeah, thanks for having me.
A – Cool, and where are you joining us from today?
M – I’m joining us from Vancouver, BC, in Canada.
A – How are things in Vancouver, Canada, is it sunny where you are?
M – It’s trying to be! It’s been a pretty good winter actually, quite mild. Not any snow.
A – So, before we get lost in a world of digital twins, Michelle, I think it might be good for listeners to learn about your role and responsibilities at Vanderlande.
M – Sure, yeah. Technically, I’m a sales consultant, so really customer facing, trying to gather some requirements and turn that into a design that works for their airport. I’ve been working mainly on some larger projects with a design-build focus, with the O&M piece coming in at the end.
A – And how long have you been with Vanderlande so far?
M – Just coming up to nine years.
A – Always in a similar role? Or was it a career change for you a few years ago?
M – I started right out of school as a layout engineer, so with a more mechanical layout focus, trying to detail the design after someone else had created it. And then slowly transitioned into “OK, I really like the design part” and was more involved in that. And now, I like to figure out how the design is to come to be in the first place, and understand the requirements from the customer.
A – OK, very good. And we come to the meat in our sandwich today, Michelle. Let’s begin with a rather obvious question… what are we specifically referring to when we talk about ‘digital twins’?
M – Well, the kind of ‘out of the book’ definition is that it’s a virtual representation, or a virtual environment of a physical object – or a physical entity. And that physical entity can be anything small, from a lamp or a computer, to something larger like your house or a city. The virtual environment is really linking the two. So, you want to see how your physical environment is built and how to monitor it, and really see what it’s doing in a virtual way.
A – Certainly from my experience, where I’m not so close to IT, what does that look like in reality? I guess you have, as you say, anything which is real as your starting point… the physical entity. But what about the digital twin? How is that created, where to you pool all your data to make it ‘come alive’, I suppose?
M – It kind of starts with a 3D model – you need to have something to start linking the data to it. So, typically this is a CAD model or a Revit model, and then you start to enhance it with additional data. It’s your live operations data or it’s your controls information, to start seeing real-time controls activity, or you start embedding sensors into the physical environment. This allows you to monitor air quality, noise level or even go so far as to see where people are moving. If you think of an office building, you can put cameras or sensors at the doorway to understand how many people came in and out of the building that day. Rather than monitoring all of these things on separate screens, you can get it in this collaborative digital environment. So, you see the same wall you’d see in person in your virtual environment, and understand the sensor sits in the ceiling area of that wall… and then you can track it that way.
A – Ah, OK. So, it becomes clearer to me now. And are there any limits? You know you talked about smaller to large objects, but in terms of today’s understanding, are there any limits to the kind of digital twins that can be created?
M – So far, no, not really. I mean it really comes down to your computing power and how much data you’re trying to handle. But, we’ve not really seen any limits. There are companies that are actually looking at making digital twins of the earth, for example, and there’ll certainly be a lot of data. So, I think that’s a pretty good example of how large it could be.
A – I think I’m inclined to agree… if you have a digital twin that is the size of a planet, I think that’s a pretty good limit that can’t be beaten! And do you know the history of digital twins? Do you know how long this technology and approach has been with us?
M – I don’t know specifically how long, but it’s certainly a proven technology. It’s been around for longer than we’ve started to introduce it in our industry. We’re seeing it in things like Formula 1 racing, using predictive monitoring to work out what’s going to happen to the car and when is the best time to bring it into the pit for maintenance. We’re seeing it used in cities, full cities like Singapore. They’ve actually built a digital twin of the whole city. And I’m not sure exactly what they’re monitoring… it could be anything. So, it’s been around for a while and it’s just becoming new in our industry, because people are realising the benefits and they want in.
A – Sure, and in terms of – you touched on a few other industries there – how has it been working in other sectors perhaps? You had Formula 1 and the city there, but where else might we have seen digital twins in action?
M – I think a really good example is actually NASA. They built a kind of digital twin of the equipment that they’re going to send up to Mars, and the Moon. They want to, basically, see how it’s going to react in that type of environment, without first sending it up there and then maybe realising problems or troubleshooting that they need to do while it’s on Mars. So, now they can simulate that environment on Earth and see if the equipment’s going to function as it’s supposed to before it goes up into space.
A – What I like there is that you can really imagine how that is of benefit to someone, NASA. Because you can’t obviously go to Mars or the Moon on a weekend, so having that knowledge transferred to the approach now is obviously quite beneficial. There’s that reason and other reasons perhaps you can go into, but why do you think this trend has gathered so much momentum in recent years do you think?
M – I think people are just realising the power of technology in general, but the power of technology in a consolidated environment. You know, that data, if it’s strong everywhere, and you that, OK, something’s over here that matches with something on the left-hand side – but they interact quite a bit, you get the benefit of all of that data in one place and then do something with it. Really, I think, people are starting to realise that you can really shave your costs quite a bit by starting to manage assets properly, or you can figure out is something I’m going to put into my city going or my airport – that is supposed to grow my system – is it actually going to have harmful effects instead? So, you can start to look at these scenarios and operational impacts before you ever build something. And then once it’s built, obviously if you can track and maintain those assets, you’re able to see real cost savings in doing something when it’s needed to be done, not on a whim or based on 20-year-old documents.
A – It’s certainly, to my understanding, helps people get more of a feel about how to make improvements or – as you mentioned there – perhaps if there’s been an oversight, something negative which they weren’t able to predict. Are there any other advantages or benefits of working in this way?
M – I think the operational benefits are where I see the biggest impact, or one of the bigger impacts. We want to understand why a conveyor, for example, why it broke or why it constantly breaks. You make guesses based on, you know, the belt is torn or the motor overheated. If it’s happening constantly and you can link it to controls data saying there was a 1,000 bags more that ended up on this conveyor than we initially expected because of something else going wrong in the system, you can now link a controls failure or a controls set of data to a maintenance problem, or a belt ripping, and hopefully prevent that from happening again in the future, or at least understand why it occurred in the first place.
A – We like this talk of conveyors and bags Michelle, because obviously at Check-in, we’re all about airports. I think that leads us nicely into perhaps the next section of our talk, which is about airports. So, how do you predict digital twins are going to make an impact at airports in the coming years?
M – I kind of see three areas. Asset management in general is done differently across the board, now you’ve got a consolidated way of maintaining them, but also visualising them. By having that 3D model, being able to click on a conveyor and getting the assets that are attached to it, you know what type of belt is on this conveyor, when was it installed, how much does it cost even. They can actually start to manage that in a way that’s much more visual than they have today. And then when you start to add in the controls information to it, you can see those operational scenarios or those simulations of how to grow your system responsibly, or how to make decisions on how to improve the congestion on a ramp, because we’ve added extra sortation areas and now we want to make sure that the tugs can actually to them and get to the planes in time. And then once you add in the sensor technology, or IoT for example, then you see the benefits of maintain a conveyor when its needed, not when it’s thought of, or something occurred on it or failed, and then you need to react very quickly.
A – The way I see digital twins in my own mind is, obviously it’s clear from our talk so far that they are very sophisticated. But I see that they evolve all the time in that you have a live airport and then the digital twin is full of data… every single touchpoint has some probably some data or information attached. So, I can imagine for airports making some technical change somewhere, they can quickly or more easily see where that change might have an effect, I guess?
M – Yeah, definitely. We’re seeing more and more airports come out with sustainability goals, is a good example there. But they don’t have any way of measuring their whole airport, certainly not the baggage system or the operations around the baggage system. So, in order to start realising those goals – or even understanding them – you have to have a way of tracking them both. Sustainability-wise, this already helps them get closer to those goals or maybe even achieve them.
A – Well, that’s a great example, because sustainability is sometimes for airports – and in other industries as well – the model is perhaps a little bit of an unknown. I mean, technology, systems, software, bags… airports are very used to. But, something that is a little bit newer, like sustainability and how is that going to fit in the operation in five to ten years, that’s where the digital twin can really bring that information to life, can’t it?
M – Oh, absolutely.
A – And so, are there any other benefits to airports. Like I say, making the future a little bit more realistic and understanding that data, are there any more benefits, would you say to airports?
M – I mean, I hope it’s that collaboration piece. You know, working together – not just with baggage – but starting to put in the passengers and the ramp movement, you can actually see where people are driving, or where you can make improvements to the passenger experience. That’s always the number one airport goal, to have this world-class airport with people moving seamlessly throughout it, but because there’s no way to track it aside from the little surveys or the happy faces that you hit on the way out of the airport. This way, they can actually gather real-time data and understand, OK yes, obviously the passengers were unhappy it took this long to get through security, or we have super-long lines at check-in, or we improve that area to get people through quicker, so they are not rushing to the airplanes or having a bad day. So yeah, passenger experience in general is going to be more easily tracked with something like a digital twin.
A – I see, because the passenger experience should be alive and well, but sometimes I guess it’s how you translate data. All those little tiny decisions such as speed of conveyor, for example, and you multiply that and there are other factors. As you say, it’s something that’s quite tricky to measure, but knowing that these data sets will have an impact on that, then airports can start to build a much richer picture of their operations, I guess?
M – Yeah, and it’s all about what are you trying to achieve. It’s something to have all of this data, but at the end of the day, if you don’t know what to do with it or it isn’t the right data to begin with, then you’re not going to do anything with it and it’s not going to be beneficial to you. But if lines, like long queuing lines, are something that’s really important for you to make shorter, then there are certainly measurable ways you can put that into a digital twin to see the impact.
A – Yeah, because the volume of data at airports – as we know – is pretty significant, so somehow cutting through that to find the information of relevance is going to be difficult. I suppose there’s that consideration, but what are the other factors involved in making digital twins more of a reality at airports?
M – I think the collaboration piece is number one. You have to be able to collaborate, not only your internal teams, but also the external teams, so that you’re building teams that you work with or the operational teams, or even airlines have a say about what goes in there, and who’s going to work with the digital twin. And then secondly, you kind of have to know what you want to do with a digital twin in order to get the benefits… just previously, how I mentioned. It’s really important to structure that at the beginning, and understand operations is our main focus – that’s where we want to start. Or maintenance is our main focus, so you know, you don’t want to add sensors on to every single conveyor to maintain every asset, if really your goal was to look at the operational side of things. The two don’t really match. So, I think it’s just important to start out with: who are you collaborating with, who’s going to use the digital twin, and what data is going to be analysed at the end of the day.
A – OK, and we talked about other industries, sectors, markets earlier… do you look horizontally at what’s happening in other industries and thinks “ah well, certainly something like this or this aspect of what these guys are doing here, that’s relevant and we can use that at airports”. Do you see anything like that happening?
M – Yeah, I mean we’re trying. It’s so new and it’s so large, everyone’s got a different idea of what scope they want and their little piece of the market, I guess. But, back to that collaboration piece, there are so many people doing this now or trying to get into it, that it’s important that all of the data can match up at some point. So, we’re trying to stay on top of what are some of our GCs doing, or some of our big architectural firms in the industry… to make sure that if the airport really wants one digital twin at the end of the day, you don’t really want multiple ones for one airport. That everyone’s speaking that same data language, and we can get it into the same environment. So, we’re trying to reach out to other key players and see what environment they’re using and what type of data do you need – just to make sure that things are going to link up in the end, because you don’t want separate twins.
A – No. And as we’ve discovered in previous episodes of Check-in, obviously there are so many stakeholders involved at an airport. And we know that when one process finishes, another organisation picks up the bag… so, we know that there are so many different players involved. Do you see that as being a challenge, trying to harmonise data?
M – Yeah, I think it goes back to who’s using the digital twin and what they’re using it for. It could be two different operational groups, or two different airlines that want the same information, but they don’t want access to each other’s information. So, I think consolidating the data is one thing, but then giving access rights or security personnel updates, is going to be the second challenge. Just like you said, there are so many players, and often your customer at the beginning of a project is very different than the customer you have at the end of a project. And then again, whoever’s using that data or digital twin is another human being, so from there, it’s going to be a large challenge, but you kind of have to get something started to get it in front of people, before they realise “Oh yes, I’m going to use it this way or this is how it benefits me”.
A – I guess with anything new there is change management, there is also education and a need to understand what the benefits are. So, I suppose if this is your platform to airports to describe why they should be looking at digital twins, what are the key things you would extract and communicate to them?
M – I think I would just say that an airport is a massive organisation, but it’s also a little city in itself. And so many things interact with each other. Passengers interact with baggage, they interact with the shops, the baggage interacts with the ramp which interacts with the plane. And it’s really hard to visualise all of that right now, because it’s in so many different places. And once you kind of start to work together, and realise, and you know a pandemic is a good example… you know, what happens if I just shut this half of the airport completely off, save a lot of energy, what does that do to my system? Where do I route my passengers? This gives you a lot of flexibility to start making these smart decisions, of what the world is doing but also how best to run your airport. And we’re a little way away from doing that, just getting everyone to work together, but if that’s the kind of dream or the light at the end of the tunnel, I think that airports will start to see the benefits there.
A – Yeah, very good. And you said it was early days, so I guess maybe you and your team have had an initial focus or perhaps a set of priorities when it comes to this subject. So, without giving away too many trade secrets away, can you tell us a little bit about you and Vanderlande have been looking into so far?
M – Obviously, we’re starting with a 3D model, because that houses all of that good data that you really want to interact with. We’re starting to look at how emulations fits into that, so those scenarios or what happens in your bag hall. And then obviously our controls data is just as important, so you want that real-time baggage information, you know where did the bag go, how is your system performing, those types of dashboard. And then lastly, I think we’re just starting to test with some of those IoT sensors, so belt tracking being a big one – making sure it’s running down the centre and not along the edges, because that will cause problems. How do we look at the noise levels inside some of our bag halls, because our equipment’s pretty noisy and we have KPIs to meet with the customer, you know this is how much noise is an acceptable level in an area where people are working or interacting. So, we’re starting to figure out how do all these pieces come together into, at least a single environment, and from there it’s really up to the customer – what digital twin environment do you want and what can we recommend to you. So, there areas: the model, the operational data – or the controls data – and the IoT sensors.
A – Very good, and I presume you’re not on your own when you’re doing this Michelle, so can you tell us a little bit about the skills and backgrounds of the team that are supporting you in looking at this area?
M – Yeah, I mean we’ve got a huge team in Vanderlande, and you know all of our customers are starting to ask for this, so it’s a little bit spread out into the customer centres. And here in Vancouver, we have our own team working on initiatives, but of course we’ve got a larger team in Veghel who really focus on the emulation and the controls side. And then an innovation team, who’s actually looking at the IoT sensors. So, it’s happening, it’s a huge bubble, and as customers are starting to ask for more and more specific things, obviously our development stream will go there, but it’s a large team in our company that’s focused on the goal of having a digital twin.
A – And I’m going to ask a question about the future, and you might not thank me for this Michelle, but it’s a bit of a million-dollar question. What do you see as being the optimal scenario in the future for digital twins if there was an ideal landscape, or if things were really cooking, and how far away would that be? So, two questions there: what is the ideal scenario, and long do you think it will take the aviation industry to get there?
M – Yeah, wow, that is a tough one. For me, I like everything… I like to have as much data as possible, and then figure out what do I want to do with it, how does it make an impact. So, for me, it’s having everybody in the same digital twin, that’s the walls, the HVAC system, the baggage system, the ramp movement, really seeing basically a little scale model of your whole airport. And I think when we talk again about these sustainability goals, you have to have everybody working together and understanding what you have already, and what you’re trying to add to it in the future, and how those impacts are making an impact to the environment, or making an impact to the decisions you’re making for your airport. And then, how far away are we? That’s a good question. I mean, technology moves so fast – especially because this is not necessarily new technology, it’s just being implemented in a different way. I think it’s closer than we think, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next greenfield airport came and said “OK, we want a digital twin at the end of this and everybody figure out how to do that”. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if it started popping up in the next couple of years, and then it’s really on us, our teams and external teams to make it happen.
A – Well, that’s all we have time for on Check-in, which just gives me a chance to say a big thank you to our guest today, Michelle Mack. Michelle, it’s been a pleasure to have you on.
M – Yeah, it’s been a pleasure to be here, thanks for having me on.
A – Well, thanks for listening and don’t forget to Check-in with us once again, when we’ll be joined by another aviation industry insider.
I do hope that you can join us for that. But until next time, stay safe and goodbye for now.