Manufacturing firms make early bets on the industrial metaverse

The metaverse concept has faced a lot of skepticism, but industrial firms appear keen to deploy technologies, such as digital twins and virtual reality devices, that serve as the precursors to more immersive and interconnected environments.

industrial metaverse concept by gorodenkoff via shutterstock

Manufacturing firms are already investing in a range of technologies that could serve as the building blocks for the industrial “metaverse,” but the end of goal of fully interconnected, immersive environments is likely to take longer to realize.

The metaverse concept has been used in recent years primarily to describe the development of a 3D internet, referring to virtual environments used mostly — so far — for entertainment. The concept has gained traction in the industrial sector specifically, where it’s used as an umbrella term for various existing technologies that can be combined to digitally replicate real-world objects and processes.

The idea is that accurate simulations of factory equipment, for example, would allow manufacturing and other industrial firms to optimize operations without disruption, improve collaboration for staff and external partners, and enhance frontline employee training. As with the consumer vision of a 3D internet, the industrial metaverse concept is a work in progress.

A survey of 350 senior leaders at US manufacturing firms by consulting firm Deloitte and the Manufacturing Leadership Council (a division of the National Association of Manufacturers), found that almost all (92%) of manufacturing firms are already investing in those technologies that could serve as the foundation for an industrial metaverse. They include mature technologies such as cloud computing and analytics, alongside more leading-edge tools such as digital twins and virtual or augmented reality devices.

“For us, it’s the blending of multiple pieces together,” said Paul Wellener, a principal at Deloitte’s US Industrial Products & Construction practice. “We’re seeing that really starting to take place at scale.”

The majority of these are pilot projects, but some are using the metaverse-related technologies in earnest too, said Wellener: “We’re seeing a lot of adoption: more than experimentation.”

Deloitte metaverse survey results Deloitte

Percentage of industrial respondents now implementing or experimenting with metaverse technology.

For example, digital twins, 3D modelling and 3D scanning have been “implemented and integrated” by a combined total of 33% of firms, the survey indicated. Additionally, 29% are at the experimentation stage.

Manufacturing production is the primary area of focus currently. Investments here tend to center on real-time monitoring and digital twins (implemented by 33%, with a further 24% experimenting here), process simulation (30% implemented and 29% experimenting), virtual prototyping (23% and 23%) and factory simulation (20% and 26%).

Other areas of focus include the “talent” ecosystem, such as immersive training and virtual plant tours; supply chain management and logistics; and customer facing systems, such as immersive customer experiences, virtual maintenance and virtual aftermarket services.

For example, digital twins, 3D modeling, and 3D scanning have been “implemented and integrated” by a third of the firms surveyed. (Another 29% are at the experimentation stage.)

Manufacturing production is the primary area of focus, with investmentsfocused on real-time monitoring and digital twins (implemented by 33%, with another 24% experimenting); process simulation (30% implemented, 29% experimenting); virtual prototyping (23% and 23%, respectively) and factory simulation (20% and 26%, respectively).

Other areas of focus include a “talent” ecosystem such as immersive training and virtual plant tours; supply chain management and logistics; and customer-facing systems such as immersive customer experiences, virtual maintenance and virtual aftermarket services.

industrial mataverse ecosystem Deloitte

How industrial companies are deploying metaverse technology.

Setting sights on the industrial metaverse

Despite the growing prevalence of the underlying technologies, there remains uncertainty about whether a true industrial metaverse yet exists. Many of the tools that serve as precursors to it have been available for a long time, said Paul Miller, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. Computer-aided designed (CAD) software has been common in the industry for decades, for example, while digital twins and AR/VR are widely available, even if less prevalent.

What these technologies still lack — at least in relation to an idealized industrial metaverse concept — is a greater level of interconnectedness. Part of Forrester’s definition of the metaverse is “ immersive experience of interoperable and interlinked environments...,” and it is in this area that currently available tools fall short for industrial applications.

“Very few are at the stage yet where they combine all of [the industrial metaverse elements] together, all of the time,” Miller said in an interview. “They combine one or two together to solve specific problems; that isn’t really an industrial metaverse in its broadest sense yet, but it is useful, it is valuable.” 

industrial metaverse building blocks Forrester

The building blocks of the industrial metaverse.

The building blocks of the industrial metaverse are “frequently proprietary, siloed and standalone,” according to a recent report by Miller and Forrester colleagues.

Digital twins — which might use IoT sensor data and 3D modelling to provide a real-time picture of a piece of equipment or factory, for example — are perhaps closest to realization, but are still limited in some senses.

“The reality today is that most digital twins are still asset- and vendor-specific,” Miller told Computerworld, with the same manufacturer responsible for both hardware and software. For example, an ABB robot may be sold with an ABB digital twin, or a Siemens motor will come with a Siemens digital twin — but getting them to work together can be a challenge.

While these types of tools offer clear benefits for customers, firms that own multiple products from multiple vendors will eventually want “one digital twin of how the factory or the line is operating, not 100 digital twins of the different components,” said Miller. Even the most advanced precursor technologies, such as factory-spanning digital twins, tend to be the product of a partnership with one vendor.

The lack of mature standards makes it “complex and expensive” to move beyond a single vendor product portfolio, Miller and his colleagues wrote. "The historically internal use cases for today’s industrial metaverse precursors mean that they lack the authentication and access control capabilities needed to support collaboration across organizational boundaries,” their report said.                            

There is progress, however, and the ongoing development of standards should lead to better interoperability. “As the standards get better, that becomes less of a problem, and we'll therefore start to see more of these sorts of complex and composite digital twins appearing,” Miller said.

Improved interoperability will also make it easier for a firm to collaborate with external partners using industrial metaverse technologies such as digital twins.

“Industrial metaverses won't be open to all comers, but they absolutely will need to be able to be open to the people who need to see them," Miller said. "As consortia become more fluid and become larger in some of these projects, that becomes more of a problem, more of a challenge, to solve. And the standards aren't quite there yet for that."

The Deloitte survey also highlights challenges in deploying metaverse-related technologies. Chief among these concerns is cost; it was  cited by 51% of respondents. Lack of relevant skills and talent (named by 50%) is another factor; that can relate to both frontline staff and those in back-office IT roles, said Wellener. Integration of newer metaverse-related technologies with existing platforms and systems is another stumbling block (45%).

metaverse deployment speedbumps Deloitte

Industrial firms are running into issues trying to deploy metaverse technology.

Manufacturing firms also remain wary of a variety of risks, including the need to protect the data required for metaverse-related technologies.

“Cybersecurity is a big issue in all technology implementations,” said Wellener. “The more connected we get, the more threats that we have coming from the outside. It's not about when you get attacked by a cyber bad guy — you will get attacked. It's what do you do once you've been attacked.”

This means applying the cybersecurity strategies used by IT to operational technology systems and processes, said Wellener.

But leakage of sensitive data is just one potential cyber threat. The ability to control physical objects and machinery creates significant employee safety risks — and the potential to damage vital equipment. "Once you've got those very significant pieces of equipment connected, if there's a penetration from the outside, it's not just about the data, it's about some physical damage that could be done to the facility to the person, whatever it might be.”

Continued investment and fixing business problems

Despite the various challenges, businesses are expected to continue to invest in immersive metaverse technologies, according to Deloitte. More than 70% of respondents expect the industrial metaverse to have a high rate of adoption in the next five years, transforming “R&D, design, and innovation and enable new product strategies,” the companys report said.

Anticipated benefits include improvements to supply chain performance; customer experience and aftermarket services; employee productivity and talent retention; and speed to market and product quality. Overall business competitiveness and revenue growth are also expected, according to the survey.

Deloitte survey pacesetters Deloitte

Pacesetters embrace change.

In pursuit of those benefits, three-quarters of those surveyed by Deloitte plan to increase their budget for metaverse-related investments by 14% over the next one to three years. Production use cases will continue to dominate, followed by customer interaction and supply chain.

Solving immediate problems for employees will be more beneficial than focusing on wider technology trends, said Miller.

“As we scale these things, it's about shifting from a technology conversation to a business problem conversation, and pulling the technology through,” said Miller. That could mean using IoT sensors to take meter readings automatically, or robotic process automation to reduce time on manual data entry.

“A lot of this could actually be quite simple technology rather than big, fuzzy, high tech stuff,” he said.

“The really big thing has to be to keep focused on the problem it's solving. Whether the solution is called industrial metaverse or not, does it help solve a real problem for a real worker on the real frontline? We sometimes get too hung up on sort of the naming piece, when actually it's about solving those problems down on the ground.”

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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