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If 2022 was the year of the metaverse, let 2023 be the year of the industrial metaverse.
Indeed, the industrial metaverse was “not yet” a significant trend in 2022, per industry analyst firm IDC. But now, the topic is on everyone’s mind. The Oxford English Dictionary named “metaverse” the runner-up in its 2022 Word of the Year contest. (First place? The phrase “goblin mode,” or “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.”)
There are plenty of takes on the industrial metaverse — and yes, some are self-indulgent and lazy. My goal here is to share a perspective that rigorously pulls back the curtain of what it’s really all about — and what it means for you.
If you were at the Schneider Electric™ Innovation Summit Las Vegas in October, you already got a head start on your journey to the industrial metaverse. We had the honor of taking a journey inside this digital world with tour guides: Schneider’s Executive Vice President of Industrial Automation, Barbara Frei, and Peter Herweck, CEO of AVEVA and the recently announced CEO of Schneider Electric as of May 2023. Together, they provided a pragmatic analysis of the next big thing in industrial automation.
What is the industrial metaverse?
Many of us already know the broad brushstrokes of the metaverse. It’s a world created by virtual or augmented reality (VR or AR). Today, that metaverse is branching out beyond Avatar, immersive gaming, and other consumer applications into the industrial space.
IDC defines the industrial metaverse as “an evolution of today’s internet that leverages mobile devices, augmented and virtual headsets, and next-generation networks to create persistent and continuous user experiences with a strong sense of presence.”
I’ve noticed some confusion in using the popular notion of the metaverse to define the industrial metaverse. Of course, there are key similarities; but the big difference worth noting is that it isn’t just a bunch of people sitting around in VR headsets playing video games or holding virtual conference calls. Of course, remote collaboration and troubleshooting are big opportunities for the industrial metaverse, but what makes it especially promising is the ability to model photorealistic real-time operations and performance across an entire factory or plant. In this sense, the industrial metaverse is best understood as a richer extension of digital twins (i.e., data-made copies of physical assets, processes, or production lines). And digital twins, fundamentally, are about visualizing data to elevate performance.
The industrial metaverse starts with data.
As Peter said at Innovation Summit, the industrial metaverse starts with data. Accordingly, establishing a solid data infrastructure that spans the complete enterprise, including the supply chain, is crucial. Industrial enterprises can build applications on top of this underlying data infrastructure to create digital twins, which in turn use that data to deliver an immersive experience.
Digital twins were already transforming the way companies work within the enterprise, with suppliers, and even with their customers. The industrial metaverse expands the opportunities of this existing transformation. It draws from a wider scope of data that spans further across the dimensions of space and time. Users can visualize and act on data points from two months, or two years ago — or those that are generated 1,000 feet, or 1,000 miles away.
For example, real-time data can flag that a thermocouple is about to fail in one of your furnaces. When real engineers arrive to fix the equipment, they can view the equipment through an AR tool, get instant access to digital diagnostic guidance, communicate with others on the team, and thus, speed the repair.
Or perhaps your team needs to retool a production line for a new product. With metaverse software, you could simulate performance of competing design options, model the requirements, and propose design tweaks on the fly — standing in the same virtual room as your colleagues on different continents. With better modeling and collaboration, you close communication loops, avoid design mistakes, and pave the way for higher performance.
These are just a couple ways that data enables immersive experiences that transform the entire industrial lifecycle — from designing systems (or even entire factories) with energy-efficiency performance requirements baked into the design, to operating assets more efficiently in real time, to maintaining the system or facility based on what cloud-based analytics reveal at any given moment.
Digital twins enable collaboration based on shared data (via the cloud) in context. While the industrial metaverse is a virtual world, it also is a real-time environment that allows industry stakeholders to visualize the data (e.g., temperature, faults, etc.), analyze it, make informed predictions, and create insights to optimize operations. Of course, it’s been possible to do this for quite some time. The industrial metaverse is something that’s been evolving for years; there’s no binary on-off switch to get into it. Rather, it’s about scale. The metaverse emerges when organizations employ these advanced digital capabilities in large-scale, enterprise-level contexts, not just single pieces of equipment or single systems within a facility.
Let’s see a concrete case study of the industrial metaverse.
At Innovation Summit, Peter and Barbara shared a concrete example of how Kellogg is embracing the industrial metaverse to transform its food production lines. The company had two major goals: reduce product variability and bring overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) in line with the consumer packaged goods (CPG) best-in-class rating.
To do so, Kellogg connected all its plants, via tens of thousands of sensors, within a single AVEVA Data Hub. By centralizing all this data in a single space, Kellogg created collaboration across not only the enterprise itself but across its partner ecosystem.
That newfound connectivity is delivering big benefits. For instance, in one of Kellogg’s factories in Spain that produces chocolate-coated cereals, it’s critical to have chocolate available at the right time and the right temperature. (Whereas for me, it’s just critical to have chocolate … period.)
By connecting with chocolate suppliers via shared production data in the cloud, Kellogg can more seamlessly manage this logistics challenge. Its chocolate producers have real-time information about the amount of chocolate in the tanks, which chocolate is there, its temperature, and the quantity needed to keep seamless production going. As you can imagine, this shared visibility of data drives productivity, reduces waste, and enables energy savings — $3.3 million per year in this factory alone.
By working with AVEVA, Kellogg has reduced critical control points (CCP) by 64%, product failures by 73%, and minor line stops by 67% to date — while achieving a CPG best-in-class rating for OEE of 80% and increasing mean time between failures rate by 180%.
To me, just-in-time chocolate is a relatable, concrete win for industries of the future and the customers who get to enjoy these tasty cereals!
The industrial metaverse is about accessing, not escaping, from reality.
The metaverse of the popular imagination is often seen as a way to escape from reality — to tune out the real world and instead occupy a fantasy.
Perhaps for some, that’s true. But I see the industrial metaverse as a way to get closer to reality. Because the alternative status-quo reality isn’t so much something industrial leaders are trying to escape from; it’s something they’re trying to gain access to.
What’s the real-time condition of this machine? Why is this conveyor failing? What’s the enterprise-level carbon footprint? Each of these questions is about trying to understand the reality of the situation. And historically, they’ve been hard to answer. The metaverse helps us realize a new environment for humans to interact with systems that, until now, may have been too large to comprehend in a single view. The industrial metaverse is simply a new, and better, way to answer long-standing questions.
And these questions are more pressing than ever. Operational efficiency and decarbonization are increasingly urgent priorities for everyone — especially industrial companies. Nearly a fourth (23%) of carbon emissions worldwide still come from industry, while the U.S. wastes 65% of all energy generated, 6 billion gallons of water a day — the list goes on. We can’t operate in “goblin mode” forever, and the industrial metaverse is here to help with that.
I realize there’s still quite a bit more going on with the industrial metaverse than a single article can contain, so I encourage you to check out other perspectives. I thought this piece from Peter was excellent. In it, he connects the industrial metaverse to two big topics: sustainability and the wider industrial-connected economy.