Blog Series: The Metaverse
Wolfgang Möller | 13 března, 2023 | 5 min read

The Emerging Industrial Metaverse

How a Virtual World Could Change the Future of Industry.

On 29 October 2021, having just rebranded to Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook uploaded a 77 minute keynote to YouTube – Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse. Comments were turned off, but reactions on other platforms were unrestricted. The range of critical views was as diverse as the avatars displayed in the film. An unappealing way to accomplish activities that could be better done on other platforms; an unregulated frontier vulnerable to privacy and cybersecurity issues; a money pit; a distraction from real problems; a road to unhealthy parasocial relationships. Yet the following year, Microsoft adopted the same language and pitched its own vision of the industrial metaverse. Should we be as skeptical as Zuckerberg’s critics were, or are we at risk of overlooking the next big industrial trend? Let’s find out.

The industrial metaverse can change engineering.
Engineer using VR glasses in the metaverse.

What Do We Mean by the ‘Industrial Metaverse’?

When you think of the words ‘industrial metaverse‘, virtual meetings on a platform like Meta’s Horizon Worlds might be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet straightforward communication is actually more the domain of the ‘consumer metaverse’, which also encompasses functionalities such as immersive gaming, shopping, tourism and more. By contrast, the concept of an industrial metaverse is that of a digital environment that hosts not just virtual conversations, but virtual copies of machines and even whole factories. You may already be familiar with its key technology, the digital twin, as well as with other building blocks of the industrial metaverse such as robotics, IoT, immersive engineering design, or augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR).

It’s important to understand that the metaverse is more than a 3D simulation. As well as viewing objects in 3D using a VR headset, or putting on AR glasses and having a heads-up display in front of us, a true metaverse breaks the boundaries between the virtual and physical worlds with the assistance of technologies like ‘mixed reality’.

Mixed reality (MR) devices allow us to touch and move a virtual object that moves a corresponding object (e.g. a machine component) in the real world. As well as removing physical barriers, the industrial metaverse allows information to flow seamlessly between both environments, as if making the two one.

In practice, the industrial metaverse is still a nascent space. It is still unclear to what degree the industrial metaverse will become a large-scale digital counterpart to the real world – or, indeed, what added value such an immersive virtual environment will bring. To begin to untangle this, it is useful to understand where the metaverse fits into the broader landscape.

 

Industrial Metaverse vs Industry 4.0: Breaking Down the Hype

Buzzwords can muddy the waters around the introduction of any new technology, but Industry 4.0 and the industrial metaverse are established terms that refer to distinct concepts. While the industrial metaverse is an immersive digital environment that is broad and developing, Industry 4.0 is an overarching term that describes the emerging industrial age or the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Thus, the industrial metaverse is a feature of the Industry 4.0 era. It sits alongside related Industry 4.0 trends such as big data and analytics, artificial intelligence, robotic automation, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and cybersecurity.

The Industrial Metaverse Isn’t New

Computer-aided design (CAD) has been around since the 1950s, with CAM (Computer-aided manufacture) following soon after. In 1982 author William Gibson coined ‘cyberspace’ as a general term for the Internet environment, whereby the metaverse is envisioned as the next generation of the cyberspace we have today. It is inaccurate, then, to say that this technology is without precedent. What is new, however, is the linking of our digital and physical worlds. For example, instead of designing a product digitally then moving to a physical prototype, information can now flow both ways. Prototypes can be tested virtually using VR headsets or AR glasses, while physical objects can be scanned and manipulated on a computer screen, transferring data in real time from the physical environment to the virtual.

You may have already used other elements of the industrial metaverse in your workplace without even realizing it. IoT devices monitoring environmental conditions, self-driving vehicles, robotics and 3D simulations using real-world data have been around for some time. However, we are only now beginning to explore the benefits of linking these together.

The Digital Twin and Its Potential Use Cases

At the heart of the industrial metaverse lies the concept of the digital twin. A digital twin is a virtual model that mirrors an object in the real world and captures event data and other input data from that object. By leveraging the power of this data through AI and other software, we open up a range of use cases related to planning, real-time response, maintenance, optimisation, agile product development, improved quality and more.

An offshore wind farm, for example, places sensors on its turbines that transmit the current wind speed, wave height, vibration and more to the control room. This data is then fed into a 3D model that displays the behavior of the turbine in real time. As well as capturing a complete picture in one place and making things easier to visualize, the digital twin allows engineers to run simulations and answer complex questions; for example, which parts will need replacing sooner than planned if the frequency of storms increases over the next decade. Instead of exporting data and running extensive manual calculations, questions such as these can be answered by simply changing a variable and running a simulation. This makes it possible to use preventative maintenance to extend the lifespan and productivity of the entire facility.

As well as answering questions, digital twins can deliver insights that facilitate proactive action. In our wind farm scenario, a machine learning algorithm could analyze weather and energy data from previous years and from multiple facilities in order to find new correlations between weather patterns and energy demand. These insights could be automatically applied to fine-tune the plant’s settings in real time.

Digital Twins in Training: Another Potential Use Case for Industry

Scenarios like the above may sound like an argument for handing over our autonomy and reasoning skills to machines. However, this isn’t the objective. Instead, it’s to outsource tedious or repetitive tasks to allow us to focus on more challenging problems as well as to avoid physical risk. One potential application of this is in training. Digital twins can be used to train employees on the use of heavy machinery; Boeing, for example, uses digital twins of its aircraft components to train assembly line workers. As well as the ability to make mistakes without consequences, this allows onboarding times to be reduced and employee retention to be improved. Prospective hires might also find it easier to visualize and experience a job before they accept the job offer. Digital twins can also be used to simulate equipment malfunctions and accidents: predicting which path plant workers will take to escape a fire can be much easier with a VR simulation.

More Efficient Design and Prototyping: How the Industrial Metaverse Could Change Global Manufacturing

When a new factory is built, it’s not uncommon for workers to use it differently to how its designers intended. Workers might take a shortcut between two machines instead of following the designated path, risking injury and equipment damage. Testing the digital twin of a proposed layout with a wide range of workers could help to mitigate these risks as well as to identify the ideal layout to minimize walking and manual handling. As well as obvious safety benefits, this can translate to significant productivity boosts. Using digital twin prototypes, Siemens estimated they were able to increase the capacity of their Nanjing plant by 200%.

On a product design level, virtual prototypes can be tested without the time and monetary expense of 3D printing and feedback gathered more easily from people in different locations. All this leads to a reduced production margin of error, shorter lead times, and fewer returns from end users.

Other notable examples of digital twins in design include Boeing’s use of VR to test new aircraft seating arrangements and overhead locker designs and in Ericsson’s digital twin cities, which were used to decide where to place their 5G towers. Digital twins of real cities are also employed by autonomous vehicle manufacturers to test their cars.

The industrial metaverse can help to reduce our carbon footprint.

Could the Industrial Metaverse Help Us Achieve a Faster Path to Net Zero?

The visual novelty of these new technologies can make it easy to overlook one of their most fundamental benefits: the ability to help us rapidly reduce our carbon footprint. Any object that can be simulated as opposed to being created and transported in the real world will save carbon emissions, water, and other vital resources. Field technicians can solve a problem remotely by walking through a digital twin with the local operator. For office workers, virtual meetings could be made even more productive than they are today, reducing the need for travel. VR and spatial audio, for example, could let you hear your colleagues speak at different volumes depending on which way you are facing, while sensors on your fingers could capture your hand movements. Will these technologies ever be able to exactly replicate being face-to-face in real life? No. But as with phone calls and video, the trade-off will be worth it in an increasing number of scenarios.

For perhaps the first time, instead of sustainability being a compromise, it will be possible to align this crucial objective with more advanced product design and lower costs.

 

Challenges We’ll Need to Solve

Of course, the industrial metaverse as it is currently conceived is not a digital utopia. There are many challenges inherent in the concept, not least because it will be formed by an ecosystem of companies and consumers as opposed to a closed platform controlled by a single tech company. These are some of the issues that anyone with a stake in the industrial metaverse should be aware of.

Security

Allowing a plant to be controlled remotely opens up a whole new interface that could be targeted by those with malicious intent. Just as industrial facilities require a higher level of security than a family home, consumer-level cybersecurity may not be adequate for industrial applications.

IP Protection

A private contractor would find it difficult to secretly photograph prototypes and machinery while on a tour of a competitor’s factory. However, access to a digital twin could make it easier for sensitive information to be captured with a simple screen recording. Manufacturers will need to find ways of restricting data to those who need it without compromising the usability of a digital twin for everyone else.

Interoperability

Few people are in favor of a web 2.0 style metaverse in which one player rules. However, an ecosystem of many competing platforms may be too difficult to work with if open standards are not applied. Imagine, for example, you are a manufacturer who has designed a virtual prototype of a new component. You are demonstrating it to a customer and want to import it into the digital twin of their factory. If both IT setups have different standards, this may not be possible. For this reason, it’s vital that solutions are platform and hardware-agnostic.

Outdated Hardware/Software

A factory full of smart sensors and advanced robotics requires an extremely fast and stable internet connection. Latency is also crucially important when managing equipment remotely. For these reasons, companies may need to invest heavily in upgrades to 5G networks and Wi-Fi 6 devices. Edge computing devices – which capture, process and analyze data at the point it is created (for example, on a wind turbine) – will likely be a critical component.

Skeuomorphism

When the wall calendar was upgraded to a digital format, developers retained the format of displaying an entire month on one page. While this is what we are used to, it isn’t the best way to visualize the future as we approach the final few days of the month. We should be mindful of the same pitfalls when designing digital twins. Is replicating every object in 3D necessary, or could some features be distracting and wasteful? Is it important to have a full-body avatar, or is it easier to connect with a colleague if you can just hear their voice?

Inclusivity

While findings vary, it appears that a high number of people experience motion sickness when using a VR device for more than 15 minutes. When designing immersive experiences, we must make them accessible and comfortable to as many people as possible. This includes adaptations for users who are hearing or visually impaired or have movement difficulties.

Summing up

The wide range of critical responses to Meta and its vision of the consumer metaverse are a reflection of the vast disruptive potential of this technology. In an industrial context, too, we have seen that this development is not without its problems and challenges. On the flip side, it could offer major benefits in the form of interactivity, efficiency and the potential to harness collaboration. The potential for meeting carbon reduction goals is reason alone to take the industrial metaverse seriously, let alone the rare opportunity to deliver productivity increases, cost reductions and product innovation in parallel. It is for these reasons that many manufacturers are planning significant investments in this area or have already begun to make them. The coming years will tell whether the industrial metaverse is realized on a global scale.

Infographic about the seven steps to the metaverse.
Infographic
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