The Paris Agreement calls on nations to set ambitious 2030 climate targets to limit rising global temperatures by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and businesses in every industry are under pressure to deliver results, fast. Emissions regulations are tightening, and fines for non-compliance are close behind. Investors, consumers, industry peers and employees are all taking action to reward environmentally sustainable companies and punish laggards, and this year’s COP26 meeting in Scotland – the first major GHG gathering since the goals were set – is only adding to the urgency.
Why are businesses such a focal point for action? As Boston Consulting Group (BCG) noted in a 2020 report, the production and logistics operations of industrial companies account for more than half of all global CO2e emissions (carbon dioxide equivalents, which include other GHG gases). “Considering current trends, emissions from production and logistics would need to decrease by approximately 45% by 2030 to be on a path to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target for limiting the global temperature increase,” BCG observed.
Although 75% of business leaders say they view decarbonization as a top priority, the BCG survey found that only 13% have adopted actionable mitigation plans. Worse, a January 2021 Fortune/Deloitte CEO survey found that 40% of CEOs have no plans to reach net-zero emissions.
For many, cost concerns are a major obstacle: 63% of the manufacturing firms surveyed by BCG in 2020 said they believed decarbonization would increase their conversion costs (manufacturing costs minus material costs) by 2030. However, one technology already used by companies to lower their costs and increase the quality of their products also can be applied to improving the sustainability of their operations, including reducing GHG emissions: virtual twin experiences, a sophisticated version of the generic technology known as digital twins.
“Operational and sustainability goals have traditionally been seen as two different things - which is why many companies don’t realize that the technology they use to become more efficient and innovative can also help them become more sustainable."Lauren Ing
Managing Director, Sustainability Strategy, Accenture
Created with a combination of scientifically accurate 3D modeling and multi-physics simulation, virtual twin experiences allow manufacturers to design and test both their products and their factory operations in the computer, before building or operating them in the physical world.
A recent report by the UK’s Royal Society highlights how leading companies are using virtual twins to model entire value chains as virtual experiences. One example: a virtual twin helped to increase the yield of some UK wind farms by as much as 20%, while improving their life spans by making design changes that reduce wear and tear on the turbines.
“Virtual twins were born out of product lifecycle management systems, helping companies – especially manufacturers – to cut costs, improve quality and accelerate cycle times,” said Lauren Ing, managing director, sustainability strategy at Accenture. “Efficiency and sustainability often go hand in hand, but operational and sustainability goals have traditionally been seen as two different things – which is why many companies don’t realize that the technology they use to become more efficient and innovative can also help them become more sustainable.”
Research by Accenture, in cooperation with Dassault Systèmes, found that only about 10% of the companies that could benefit from virtual twin experiences are currently using them. But the study estimates a rapid annual growth rate of 36% for virtual twin technology over the next five years – a massive opportunity for companies to improve their sustainability with technology that also improves their business operations.
“This report examines these opportunities and some of the use cases where virtual twins can, or already do, model entire value chains as virtual experiences,” Ing said. “The five use cases we examined demonstrate how the technology can unlock combined additional benefits of up to US$1.3 trillion [€1.0 trillion] of economic value and 7.5 gigatons of CO2e emission reductions between now and 2030.”
Doubling the benefits
Connecting the operational and sustainability agendas via virtual twin experiences creates an opportunity for organizations to double the benefits they receive from the platforms that many already use to design, manufacture and distribute their products and services.
“Using a virtual twin to model and test their ideas gives companies space to innovate with sustainability, alongside operational improvements,” Ing said. “In the consumer packaged goods industry, for example, design decisions can be linked to 80% of a product’s environmental impact. A company might use virtual twin technology to design new packaging that reduces the cost associated with a certain type of solvent; if they turn a sustainability lens on that area, they’ll see their choices have also created benefits in terms of environmental impact. Once they start measuring those benefits, they can grow their sustainability gains further by identifying opportunities for improvement in areas like carbon footprint or material sustainability.”
Automakers have long used virtual twins to simulate the performance of their vehicles, even conducting crash tests in the computer rather than in physical labs with real cars. Now, that same virtual twin technology is being applied to emissions testing, fuel efficiency and electrical vehicle range estimates, all required by the Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP).
That procedure, which once required physical wind-tunnel testing of actual cars producing real emissions, can now be conducted in the computer with results that precisely match real-world testing. In addition to eliminating the emissions generated by testing cars, the virtual tests avoid the need to build and transport vehicles – many of which are later scrapped – to wind tunnels for testing. Virtual testing also avoids the need to build additional wind tunnels to handle the demand. Meanwhile, automakers can conduct more tests in less time – and at significantly less cost.
Sustainable to the core
Factoring sustainability issues into a product’s design, manufacture, service and recyclability from the outset is essential to achieve its full potential. The ceramics and metals industries, for instance, generate huge amounts of excess heat that are dispersed into the atmosphere; finding a way to capture that energy would improve their sustainability and lower their power costs.
One company that is tackling the challenge: Germany-based green energy startup Kraftblock, which is using virtual twin technology to develop scalable, cost-effective modular systems for collecting, storing and transferring renewable energy.
“Storage systems will be essential to any truly sustainable energy system, independently of what kind of energy or where it is used,” said Martin Schichtel, Kraftblock’s founder and CEO. “We also want to ensure sustainability in the making of our system, as well as its application. The material we developed to store energy takes less energy to produce than its competitors because it’s produced at room temperature using very simple processes, including a lot of recycled materials.”
Kraftblock is working with a pilot customer to create an energy storage system that will enable the customer to decarbonize by 2025. As the pilot company transitions from gas to renewable power, mainly in the form of wind-generated electricity, storing and recycling its excess heat will provide backup energy that can be tapped for its 24/7 operation when the wind isn’t blowing.
“Virtual twin software enables us to combine different stages in our product development,” Schichtel said. “We can simulate aspects like thermal or mechanical stress in the storage system before we construct the system, for instance. And we can simulate the whole energy system, including the customer’s energy source, to deliver valuable data and demonstrate the system’s reliability in different conditions.”
The virtual twin is essential in helping Kraftblock ensure efficient heat-to-energy transfer across the system. “We do a lot of simulations with the technology, including process control to predict how the system will operate,” Schichtel said. “That’s really important in showing our customers different scenarios and giving them confidence that everything will work as planned. In the future it will also enable us to do things like predictive maintenance and developing artificial intelligence control systems.”
Once a company has identified the sustainability benefits that virtual twins can deliver – or are already delivering – to its direct operations, the next step is to scale that thinking across the value chain.
That proactive, systems-thinking approach is behind the groundbreaking achievements of Damen Shipyards Group in Gorinchem, Netherlands. Using simulation technology, the company is capitalizing on innovations that enable zero-waste operations to produce zero-emission ships.
“There is a strong business and social incentive to promote environmental sustainability. Digitalization means we can make firm performance commitments to partners, stakeholders and operators, demonstrating the additional value these innovations bring in terms of assured financial gain.”Jorinus Kalis
Manager of Developement, R&D, Damen Shipyards Group
“There is a strong business and social incentive to promote environmental sustainability,” said Jorinus Kalis, Damen’s manager of development in R&D. “Digitalization means we can make firm performance commitments to partners, stakeholders and operators, demonstrating the additional value these innovations bring in terms of assured financial gain.”
Damen uses 3D design, development and visualization tools from each project’s initiation phase. Virtual twin technology enables the company to create, test and validate efficiencies across systems, products and operations – and demonstrate them to internal and external stakeholders.
“System integration and optimization are key to carbon reduction,” Kalis said. “But options for creating greater efficiency can be complex and therefore difficult for people to understand. The business and technical cases for modifying and innovating interacting fuel, propulsion and electrical systems can more easily be made using highly visual and ultra-realistic validated data that proves the financial and environmental impacts of decisions.”
As well as helping the company to deliver the sustainable products its customers want, Damen’s virtual twin capabilities help to modify and innovate the interaction of fuel and propulsion and optimize the performance of its business. “In addition to simulating onboard vessel systems, Damen’s shipyard operations have also been simulated, leading to manufacturing process efficiencies and reductions of wasted materials and work,” Kalis said. “This strategy has doubled manufacturing productivity for some shipyard operations, and we plan to extend this aspect of simulation further.”
Construction is another industry where sustainability and business impacts converge to create system-wide change. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that building construction and operations accounted for 38% of CO2 emissions in 2019, a figure that must be reduced by half if the industry is to achieve its 2030 GHG targets.
“Innovative minds, enabled with digital technology that helps realize their visions, will deliver commercial and environmental sustainability to industry players that are prepared to embrace this crucial transformation.”Fabrice Bonnifet
Director of Sustainable Development & QSE, Bouygues Group
International construction firm Bouygues Group is using virtual twin technology to achieve a wide range of ambitious targets in the design, construction and operation of buildings.
“We are developing a unified, enterprise-wide business platform to digitally simulate, predict performance characteristics and thereby transform the design, engineering and operation of all our products, projects and processes,” said Fabrice Bonnifet, director of Sustainable Development & QSE (Quality, Safety, Environment) at Bouygues Group. “This provides the means for highly efficient low-carbon capabilities across all of Bouygues’ construction activities. We also digitally ‘bank’ materials by keeping a database of components that have already been used in buildings. At the end of a structure’s life, these parts will be used again in other, future buildings.”
Bouygues uses virtual twins to reveal a structure’s long-term environmental impact, then digitally engineers mitigations that include improved insulation, airflow, energy usage and recycling strategies. The company’s Autonomous Building for Citizens (ABC) community in Grenoble, France, is a living laboratory for its efforts. This social housing development generates and stores its own electricity, harvests rainfall, processes its waste into compost and biogas energy, and recovers heat from recyclable wastewater. The results: a 40% reduction in household waste, a 70% drop in the need for piped-in water, and a solar farm that supplies more than 107% of residents’ electricity demand. Performance data also is shared with occupants, encouraging community action to perpetuate and increase the benefits.
“We will increasingly see digitally developed modular construction that brings technically perfected, accurately made, low-carbon components cleanly to worksites for easy assembly,” Bonnifet said. “Innovative minds, enabled with digital technology that helps realize their visions, will deliver commercial and environmental sustainability to industry players that are prepared to embrace this crucial transformation.”
Looking to the life cycle
Despite such progress, climate action must accelerate if the world is to meet the 2030 targets on its way to net-zero by 2050. Expanding the use of virtual twins offers part of the solution. And now the potential for virtual twins to make a meaningful impact on sustainability goals is getting a major boost: the addition of life cycle assessment (LCA) technology, which measures the air, water and energy-use impacts of various human activities.
Although LCA has primarily been used for end-of-year reporting on a company’s impacts, to document a downward trend, the combination of LCA and virtual twins will give companies insights into the impacts of different design, manufacturing and transportation scenarios in the computer, before anything occurs in the real world. In this way, the combined technologies will give every designer, manufacturing engineer and logistics planner the information they need to make low-impact choices.
“We live in an information age where we can see in real-time the weather, traffic and stock exchange situation, from Tokyo to São Paolo,” said Reinout Heijungs, associate professor in the Department of Operations Analytics of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a globally recognized LCA expert. “Why can’t we add sustainability data to that? If every company was obliged to report its emissions in a standardized way, doing LCA would be much easier and we would not need to use data about steel production in 1985 as if it is relevant for today.”
Soon, with LCA tools embedded into the 3D design and multi-physics simulation capabilities that create and power virtual twins, designers will be able to easily assess the relative impacts of different approaches to designing and manufacturing a product across the value chain – from materials extraction to production, logistics, use and end of life – and choose the most sustainable options.
“It’s about expanding the network and empowering people across the organization to understand how their decisions and choices impact sustainability, and how they can influence some of those metrics,” Accenture’s Ing said. “Professionals from different areas of the business, including sustainability, engineering and research and development, need to be speaking the same language, to identify the ways that technology can benefit both the business and sustainability.
“Virtual twins provide a digital thread through the product life cycle that allows them to do that, and to model, test and refine their ideas in the virtual world before committing the Earth’s resources.”
Learn more about how virtual twins support sustainability