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Future Says S3E1: Starting Small and Thinking Big with Digital Twin

We’re delighted to kick off Series 3 of Future Says together with Vijayakumar Kempuraj, digital twin lead at the Ford Motor Company. Kempuraj has been with Ford for more than a decade and has worked in a variety of roles that give him a unique perspective into the worlds of design, data, computer-aided design and engineering (CAD/CAE), digital transformation, and more. Much like how digital twin is an amalgamation of complementary technologies working together, Kempuraj’s wide-ranging background gives him the ideal skillset for his current role, where he’s responsible for the design, implementation, and strategy of Ford’s digital twin initiatives. 

In this episode, he discussed all things digital twin with series host Sean Lang, including how organizations can build an achievable digital twin strategy, how these strategies can demonstrate short- and long-term value, and where he anticipates digital twin will head in the coming decade. 

Building a Successful Digital Twin Strategy

To begin, Kempuraj spoke to Lang about how digital twin is more far-reaching than most people expect. He said that while the traditional definition of digital twin – a digital representation of a physical, real-world thing – is true, digital twin technology isn’t just limited to products. What he means is that organizations can make virtual representations – twins – of other aspects of business operations, such as processes, workflows, and more. As he explained to Lang, Ford and other organizations are already doing this by making digital twins of things like supply chains, procurement processes, and design lifecycles. These twins allow organizations to make their operations quicker, more efficient, and more flexible. 

But Kempuraj is careful to say that implementing a successful digital twin strategy isn’t straightforward – it takes personnel, infrastructure, and time. “Moving to a digital twin is not a small, incremental transformation – it’s a humungous leapfrog, like going from the industrial age to the technology age,” he said. He also said that building successful digital twin strategies begins with setting clear, achievable goals from the outset, which he called a “top-down” process; by setting your sights on a main goal, you can then start building the requirements to achieve that goal. He emphasized that this goal-setting process depends heavily on where organizations are at regarding their digital maturity. He said teams and organizations need to be honest with themselves when they evaluate their capacity to build, manage, and improve resources related to artificial intelligence (AI), simulation, data analytics, and high-performance computing (HPC).  They need to identify the gaps in their existing infrastructure and seek the building blocks to cover these cracks and optimize their digital twins – whether it’s within data analytics, simulation, or otherwise. 

Identifying Key Timeframes

Though Kempuraj sees fully-realized digital twin strategies as a long-term goal, he told Lang that teams can and should aim to score short-term “wins” that will help them scale their initiatives. Kempuraj noted that timeframes and milestones move at different paces depending on the industry and the size of an organization, but teams should aim to achieve demonstrable successes every 3-12 months. Scoring these smaller, short-term successes inspires confidence in teams and builds the digital maturity needed to execute and maintain an enterprise-wide digital twin strategy. 

These short-term wins can feed the “five-to-ten-year initiatives” that bring headline statistics. Lang pointed to a recent McKinsey report that further proves this point; according to the report, “digital twins have the potential to increase revenue 10%, increase product quality 25%, and accelerate time to market by as much as 50%.”

One example of a valuable short-term win Kempuraj mentioned was within the application of Ford’s connected vehicles. His team has created a vehicle-to-design feedback loop so engineers can understand what features customers are utilizing and which ones are redundant. These feedback loops can give designers insight they wouldn’t normally have. For example, Kempuraj said that despite the proliferation of streaming devices, their data has shown that customers still use and value CD players. 

Looking Ahead

This series has “future” in the name, so it only makes sense to note Kempuraj’s thoughts on the future of digital twin. Within the next five years, he anticipates that digital twins will begin to interconnect and form holistic systems. Right now, most digital twin initiatives are confined to one department, product, or workflow. But Kempuraj believes that as companies grow more comfortable with the technology, build more experienced teams, and develop more advanced data and computing infrastructure, digital twins will spread throughout enterprises and encapsulate more and more activities. This will not only connect products and processes, but teams and individuals – in fact, this is already happening. “Gone are the days where we’re pocketed in skills teams, where the IT people sit over here and the analytics people over here and the marketing and businesspeople elsewhere,” he said. At Ford, the digital teams are made up of 50% domain experts, since they’re the ones that “know the function and the use cases,” and 50% digital experts. To create these multi-disciplinary teams, Kempuraj also spoke about the easy-to-use enablement tools and data literacy trainings required to fuel this mindset and culture shift.

Undoubtedly, Kempuraj is excited for the future of digital twin and believes industries and organizations are only just at the beginning of their adoption curve. He told Lang that the technology has an astounding potential to make our products better and improve the way we work, and that organizations that invest soon are the ones that will benefit the most. Naturally, future success will be built on today’s strategies, so setting achievable goals and making constant strides toward those goals is paramount. In essence, Kempuraj advised teams and organizations to dream big, think small, fail quickly, and scale fast. 

Click here to watch the full interview with host Sean Lang and guest Vijayakumar Kempuraj and to get all the latest from Future Says Series 3.