Internet of Things and the Digital Twin—Impact on Technical Communication

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Adam Dales, Siemens Industry Software Ltd.

Yin and Yang, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus—all through history, Twins have always held the power to surprise, to fascinate, and to empower us. Today, the ‘Digital Twin’ is quickly becoming reality, and it’s a big enabler of the ongoing consumerization of manufacturing. And one of Digital Twin’s big enablers is… the Internet of Things (IoT).

Figure1

Close to 1000 people recently attended a day-long summit on the IoT at Tel Aviv University. They included major executives at leading multinational corporations as well as entrepreneurs, investors, and representatives from academia, government, investment groups, venture law firms, and analyst groups.

What is IoT?

Figure2

So maybe before going further, is anyone asking, “um, what’s that ‘Internet of Things’, if you don’t mind?”

Sure—now machines, CPUs, chips, sensors—without a direct human layer—can exchange useful information with each other over the internet. And they can initiate decisions, actions, and solutions. IoT is paving the way for robot-robot, robot-machine, and robot-human cooperation. All that’s a quantum leap forward in automation! Can we predict how this will affect our work in documentation?

One focus of the summit was the growing trend of consumer IoT uses—wearable gadgets, ‘fitbit’ bracelets and necklaces to monitor health and habits, sensors for infant well-being, home fridge re-stocking, plant watering, and so on. But also receiving a lot of attention was the need to secure the incredible increase in information flow. Data security and privacy over IoT certainly seems like a double-scoop of innovation/business opportunity today. And communicators and information developers are already being called on to document how to connect and secure all this new communication. Technical writers at Microsoft are documenting the Azure IoT solution—from detailing the architecture of the connectivity hub, providing support documents for development, explaining service processes (communicating between things), and elucidating the security technologies in use. Myriad types of new sensors that communicate over the cloud will also demand our familiarity and ability to document their setup and use.

Beyond the fast rising consumer gadget sector, the presentations and panels were taken up with Industry 4.0, featuring the adaptive smart factory. Today’s fourth industrial revolution will move us exponentially beyond the three that preceded it:

  • 1st—started about 175 years ago: enabled by coal and steam power
  • 2nd—began about 115 years ago: galvanized by electric power and mass manufacturing
  • 3rd—initiated only about 45 years ago: propelled by computers, digitalization, and global scale automation

In this newest phase, industry is able ‘to predict the future’ by showing much greater flexibility in reacting to continually changing consumer demands and future orders. It can introduce engineering changes more quickly to handle spikes in production volume while removing bottlenecks. Virtual automation is fed by real-time data from sensors in the physical factory and manufacturers can revise the model to be much closer to the reality on the assembly floor. More and more, our colleagues will be called on to explain these processes to planners, engineers, and shopfloor managers.

Figure3

The Digital Twin (cyber-physical model) captures the pace of increasing complexity in manufacturing, especially in the last half decade. For an example of this acceleration as close as your wrist, advanced chronometers of a few years ago still had mechanical gears whirring around inside, plus a basic chip with just a few thousand lines of code. But the latest smart watches are fully digital, powered by millions of lines of code.

Figure4

Today there’s pressure in every industry to release a variety of models simultaneously—the seeming impossible paradox of mass-market customization. Hyper surges in manufacturing are further spurred by the shorter market lifespan of products. Never has industry been so obliged to accelerate the unveiling of subsequent product versions, and each time with more innovation in design and function. Here are just a couple of examples from car manufacturing:

  • In Germany over the last 20 years, there’s been an increase of 82 percent in the number of models sold
  • The Nissan Power 88 has been coming off the assembly line as an all-new vehicle every six weeks for the last six years

The explosion in smartphones with newer and more frequent models is another well-known example. Medical interventions and implants, energy supply, together with many additional markets are further cases of the accelerating boom in smart products.

As go-to-market deadlines get shorter and more aggressive, IoT is the enabler, based on the following supporting factors, which are becoming cheap and plentiful:

  • Sensors—many types (light, temperature, movement, moisture, sound…) and the variety is increasing
  • Standardization of data interchange
  • Big data storage and analysis
  • Stronger CPUs
  • Cloud

Advanced robotics is another hot area for application of IoT:

Figure5

In this new revolution, industry, healthcare, and household operations increasingly rely on automation systems to run their processes and find solutions to be able to continue to thrive in the face of change. Here are some of the transformations going on in the foreground and background as a result:

  • Today there are 5-6 billion computers, including smart phones that are connected over the internet, but that number is beginning to skyrocket. It will reach perhaps 50 billion thanks to other devices that are also connecting: TVs, wearables, sensors (even home thermostats), refrigerators, and many more.
  • IP address format will have to be modified to accommodate the exploding number of devices, each requiring unique identification.
  • Infrastructure of the internet itself is being hugely enlarged to keep up with new data transfer capacity needs.

Technical writers in companies large and small are already working on documentation aimed at developers and designers of industry-based IoT solutions. For example (courtesy of Eliezer Reinhold, AT&T), writers document a series of design flows together with the Readmes for each one, to cover topics like:

  • What does this flow do?
  • What do I have to do before using this flow?
  • How does this thing work?
  • What are some useful things to know?
  • What does it looks like?

The Digital Twin can provide insight and clear options for optimizing industrial processes in light of disruptive change. It can empower ‘prophet-able’ decision-making to succeed in the uncertainty of future market demands. And best of all, together with IoT, the Digital Twin is creating increased opportunity for technical information developers.

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