Vaibhav Parsoya, Intrapreneur – Digital Solutions Innovation, Marine & Offshore at LR, looks at the growing appetite for digital twins in offshore, and why the marine industry has just as much to gain from a five-dimensional future.

Digital twinning is the practice of creating a virtual reproduction of a physical asset and using expert intelligence to develop real-time predictions about its future performance. The concept of digital twins is not a new one. First applied in a manufacturing context by the Florida Institute of Technology’s Michael Grieves in 2002, the idea that objects would one day have manipulable and interactive digital counterparts stretches back even further, to the early 1990s.

There are many different definitions for what constitutes a digital twin; my personal belief is that some degree of dimensional categorisation is required. Three-dimensional (3D) models are simply static, albeit virtual, representations of an object, and 4D models – even with the addition of information on how that object may change over time – also fail to capture the essence of digital twinning.

True digital twins require a fifth dimension to be added, one in which expert intelligence is also digitally modelled and applied to the virtual object, allowing useful and accurate forecasts to be made on how its physical counterpart will fare in the future. In basic terms, the virtual twin lives an identical life to that of its real-world partner, providing human operators with vital information about the potential performance of that object over the duration of its lifecycle.

Naturally, there are many potential applications for this technology across both the marine and offshore industries, with one of the strongest use cases surrounding structural health management (SHM). And while the offshore industry has been actively looking to apply digital twinning to both floating and fixed oil and gas assets (and, in some limited instances, to offshore renewable platforms), marine operators have been rather more reserved in their pursuit of its potential benefits. Demand to date has come primarily from non-commercial entities – marine navies – and has focused predominantly on only the highest-value assets.

This reticence is somewhat understandable. As with all emergent technology, digital twinning comes with a relatively high barrier to entry in terms of investment, and a period of optimisation and learning can be necessary in order to generate a suitable return. Significant cultural shifts can also be needed, commercial, technical, and social realignment particularly important in organisations where fixed calendar/cycle based maintenance practices are already deeply embedded.

Nonetheless, digital twins represent a considerable opportunity for commercial marine and offshore operators to fundamentally rethink the way in which they monitor and maintain the long-term performance of their assets – and capitalise on some major opportunities as a result.

At LR, we see three key benefits from the deployment of digital twins:

• They can make inspection, maintenance, and repair more focused. By using predictive data generated by the virtualised asset, operators have the opportunity to move from calendar-based, prescriptive maintenance schedules to condition-based inspection and repair. This has obvious positive implications for factors including repair and replacement costs, asset availability, enhanced safety, and reduced interruption to normal operations.

• They reduce the time between data collection and decision making. Historically, data about an asset’s performance would usually only become available to R&D personnel at the end of a project or maintenance cycle. With digital twins, which can run complex modelling exercises almost instantaneously, this time can be reduced from months to just a matter of days.

• They encourage greater collaboration between stakeholders. By offering a real-time look at the likely condition of an asset, compliance partners and regulatory bodies can use digital twins as a single source of truth that helps them make faster and better-informed decisions about whether an asset should be cleared for continued operation.

This strategic approach to SHM is evident in a new project being undertaken by LR for Bluewater, a designer and operator of Floating Production, Storage, and Offloading (FPSO) units. Here, the digital twin developed by LR will utilise a combination of multi-physics models, sensor information, and unit design data in order to determine the global and fatigue hull strength of Bluewater’s Glas Dowr FPSO. By doing so, it will provide Bluewater with the ability to predict structural performance prior to physical redeployment.

Digital twins represent an evolution in the offshore and marine industries’ ability to maintain the long-term viability of high-value assets. By moving from prescriptive, schedule-based maintenance cycles to condition-based repairs that use sophisticated, real-time modelling, operators have the chance to reframe maintenance with SHM in the context of Industry 4.0.

So, how do operators move from where they are today to realising the full value of digital twin technologies tomorrow? As above, this is a strategic activity, and one that should be undertaken in stages and with an experienced and trusted partner. Here at LR, we recommend the following approach:

• Step 1. Digital Twin 'Readiness’. This is the initial investigation phase conducted by LR. We begin by working with the customer to understand everything from the business objective to the more technical elements of data availability and quality. Here, all stakeholders including ship designers, maintenance teams, measurement/instrumentation suppliers and so on, work together to ensure we’re ready for the next step.

• Step 2. Digital Twin 'Set Up. This is where the digital twin is built and initial training is carried out to ensure everything is aligned to the business and technical objectives identified in the readiness stage. Once complete, the digital twin is ‘commissioned' and begins leveraging the live data and ‘learning’ during the asset's live operations.

• Step 3. Digital Twin 'Live'. This is where the digital twin increases its fidelity and starts delivering back value in terms of reduced operational cost, more focused inspections, and dramatic reductions in human intervention.

With the ultimate objective of SHM being to ensure the safety and usability of an asset, digital twins have a huge role to play and present an opportunity to do it faster, more reliably, and with the bare minimum of asset downtime.