The industrial metaverse: a quick guide for enterprise
“The real future of the metaverse is not for consumers,” wrote Pekka Lundmark in the Financial Times in 2022. Although the metaverse is often touted as a place where, in the near future, we will meet our friends, play games, and do our shopping, the reality is that it will probably have the biggest impact not on entertainment and social media but on manufacturing and enterprises, thanks to what’s now referred to as the industrial metaverse.
That’s not to say that we won’t adopt the metaverse in our day-to-day lives. Garner predicts that by 2026, a quarter of people will spend an hour or more in the metaverse. Brands are already experimenting with advertising and selling products/services to customers in this exciting new space.
However, for enterprises, the industrial metaverse provides a different set of opportunities.
What is the industrial metaverse?
The industrial metaverse is a digital world that mirrors real-life machines, factories, buildings, cities, grids, transportation systems, people, and processes. As a result, every aspect of business operations can happen either entirely virtually or in a hybrid fashion, i.e., virtually and physically.
The industrial metaverse comprises technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality, big data analytics, and 5G.
To quote Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia, a company working on the industrial metaverse:
“A lot of people think that—when you say “metaverse”, they imagine putting on VR headsets, but it’s obviously not just that. You can do that, but you can also enjoy it in 2D. One of my favorite ways of enjoying the metaverse is a whole bunch of robots in the metaverse doing work and communicating with robots that are outside in the physical world. The physical world and the metaverse can be connected in a lot of different ways. It doesn’t just have to be humans. It can be machine to machine.”
By blending the physical with the digital, the industrial metaverse will:
- Increase collaboration by allowing people to come together in virtual and augmented physical spaces (or a blend of both).
- Enable better decision-making.
- Change how products and services are manufactured and delivered to customers.
- Transform how customers and businesses interact, i.e., from generic to personalised, immersive experiences.
Many companies that originally started in the consumer metaverse space are now moving into the industrial metaverse space. For example, Magic Leap recently pivoted towards the industrial metaverse, and Google Glass has revised its product for industrial and enterprise applications.
Underpinning the industrial metaverse are 3D assets that companies can use across the entire business process. And when it comes to the industrial metaverse, most of these experiences revolve around avatars and the new concept of digital twins.
What are avatars?
Avatars (graphical representations of humans) are not new, but they are continuously being developed to better imitate humans. This is important, as experts predict that in the metaverse, digital identities will be represented by avatars.
“By leveraging avatars, anyone can express themselves digitally in ways that weren’t possible before,” said The Sandbox’s co-founder and chief operating officer Sebastien Borget.
In 2022, NVIDIA introduced Violet, a cloud-based avatar. Violet is a prototype of avatars that can respond to natural speech and make recommendations and can be deployed in any industry.
In NVIDIA’s promotional video, we can see Violet “working” in a restaurant environment. She responds to a customer’s query about low-calorie options and takes their order. But she can also answer questions that are not related to food, like what is the Lemon Slice Nebula.
In the future, we are likely to see avatars and holograms in other business settings as well, for example as virtual assistants, virtual receptionists, employee onboarding officers and guides, as well as being used for training purposes and for remote collaboration.
What are digital twins?
Digital twins are physically accurate virtual representations of real-world assets, people, and business processes that are AI-enabled and work in synchrony with real-world versions.
They do not require human intervention to interact with the physical world and often rely on camera-enhanced robots or drones to scan environments or objects to gather real-time data and make assessments.
McKinsey uses the example of a factory production line or an important piece of machinery. The digital twin for either could produce critical data, like how long it takes to complete a product assembly or average equipment downtime, and use AI for process optimisation or predictive maintenance.
Besides predictive analysis of a system, digital twins can improve flexibility, reduce business failures, and help companies determine the feasibility of physical prototypes.
The global market for digital twin technology came to $10.3 billion in 2021, and 70% of C-suite technology executives are looking to invest in digital twins. Unsurprisingly, the IMARC Group predicts that the market will reach $54.6 billion by 2027, showing a CAGR of 31.7% between 2022 and 2027.
Digital twins and avatars are being implemented across many different industries and for a variety of use cases relating to the industrial metaverse. Below are just a few examples.
Mars, a manufacturer of confectionery, food products, and pet food and services, is collaborating with Accenture to create a digital twin of its manufacturing operations or the “Factory of the Future”.
The companies started by creating a digital twin of Mars’ production lines at an Illinois factory with the primary goal of solving the problem of overfilled packages.
The digital twin took data from manufacturing machinery and fed it into a predictive analytics model. This made it possible for factory line operators to predict the impact of changes to the filling process in real-time. The twin solution was eventually introduced across other factories in the US and pet care businesses in China and Europe.
In the future, Mars is hoping to leverage the concept of digital twins even further, using digital “avatars” of their production lines to trial changes and determine where problems are (for example, supply chain backlogs) and how to solve them.
On the other hand, NVIDIA recently launched the IGX platform to improve worker safety at manufacturing plants. A combination of hardware and software, IGX can be programmed to enable “proactive security alerts” when humans work alongside robots.
In the past, if a worker stepped in front of a robot, the robot would slow down or stop. Although this ensured the worker’s safety, it often resulted in unplanned downtime. With IGX, AI sensors placed around a factory can identify potential collisions before they happen, sending messages to robots/humans to alter their routes and avoid slowing down or stopping.
IGX can also use digital twins to create simulations of factories in order to predict “future exposure to safety threats,” allowing businesses to alter their factories’ layouts to reduce the likelihood of workers’ and robots’ paths crossing.
Nemo’s Garden, a startup that tests the viability of growing fruit, vegetables, and herbs underwater, uses digital twin technology to iterate designs and test concepts without having to do so physically, which would be very difficult and expensive due to its particular environment.
A number of limitations, including short summers and lengthy physical testing, meant that although the prototype for Nemo’s Garden was a success, the team was restricted to one innovation cycle per year. As a result, it would take them years before they could turn the prototype into a global solution.
To speed up the process and scale the operations, Nemo’s Garden partnered with Siemens to build a twin of Nemo’s Garden biosphere.
In addition to replicating (and iterating) the design digitally, the twin also simulates the growing conditions within the biosphere, how the equipment affects the body of water it is in, and the environment surrounding it. Siemens also trained a machine learning algorithm to monitor the plants from anywhere in real-time rather than having divers collect data.
“Nemo’s Garden is a one-of-a-kind system and we need to adapt to each environment where it is to be installed. If you can model that environment virtually before you start, you can foresee the challenges and address them in the best way,” said Nemo’s Garden co-founder Luca Gamberini.
Bayer also delved into the industrial metaverse in the form of an AR filter. The multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company wanted to enhance their customer service by simplifying the process of teaching farmers how to use their new reporting system.
Farmers were sent a printed version of the report which could be scanned in order to activate the WebAR experience. The AR custom crop report made it easier to share observations and recommendations.
Earlier in 2022, the city of Las Vegas launched a digital twin of a seven-square-kilometre area of its downtown.
The twin receives real-time street-level data via the city’s 5G network and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, through APIs which are connected to this twin and can be reviewed in real-time by software or operations managers in VR (eg. through a VR headset) or AR (eg. through AR glasses), and even assisted with AI. The manager can view, for example, how saturated parkings are in real-time, traffic conditions, fire safety, wind circulation, and lots of other useful data that helps manage a city more efficiently and safely. The city hopes this information will make dealing with emissions, traffic, parking, and other issues easier.
Las Vegas is not the only city in the United States experimenting with this type of technology. New York, Los Angeles, and Orlando are among some of the other cities that have implemented digital twins.
Meanwhile, Singapore is set to become the world’s biggest digital twin country. The Singaporean tech company that created the digital twin is also planning on launching a metaverse version of the country.
National Highways in the UK are working on a digital roads strategy that includes digital twins of some of England’s largest roads. Combined with live data from road sensors, the digital twins will be able to detect in real time when and where potholes and other maintenance issues happen.
According to National Highways, digital twins of England’s roads will reduce traffic jams, decrease the amount of time and money it takes to inspect roads and reduce emissions by 50%.
Digital twin technologies are also useful for building management and maintenance. A digital twin that replicates a building’s state in real-time can detect building errors, pinpoint trends, and test different scenarios, like how a cooling system would perform if there were more people in the building than usual.
The sports and entertainment arena in Los Angeles, SoFi Stadium, has a digital twin that helps with daily building management. Besides providing management with information on the current conditions of the building and facility equipment, the digital twin also simplifies game day operations by showing new staff, contractors, and vendors where exactly they’re supposed to be on the day.
Through the use of drones and robots, buildings and machinery can be scanned using AI technology to reveal any maintenance or repairs needed. EasyJet is one of the biggest companies already taking advantage of this technology. In 2015 the airline conducted a trial inspection of its Airbus A320 using a drone, which scanned the aircraft to find any damage which may require maintenance, using smart navigation and computer vision.
This approach can significantly reduce the money and resources spent carrying out inspections, leading to fewer flight delays and better safety for passengers.
In any business environment, it is not uncommon for a critical piece of equipment to break down and cause costly downtime.
At the energy services company Petrofac, the speed with which equipment is fixed depends on how quickly engineers can collect photographic evidence, send emails, and schedule calls with subject matter experts (SMEs) onshore.
To speed up this process, which can take hours and sometimes days, Petrofac partnered with Accenture to create a connected worker solution.
The solution equips engineers with wearable headsets that enable them to inspect equipment digitally, document issues autonomously, and send any relevant data SMEs needed to carry out diagnostics onshore.
The engineers can also use the hands-free headsets for over-the-shoulder SME support for inspections, routine maintenance, troubleshooting, and live repairs.
Not only did the connected worker solution improve efficiency, but it also increased safety and made knowledge transfer between engineers and SMEs easier.
On the other hand, the Toms River Municipal Utilities Authority in New Jersey uses digital twin technology and VR headsets to see the pipes that lay underground. This means workers don’t have to dig unnecessarily and potentially damage the infrastructure when doing maintenance.
As director for Toms River MUA Len Bundra explained, “Given a more dynamic situation—a car hits a telephone pole, the pole collapses onto the street—seven separate agencies are on scene, each viewing [its] own GIS utilities on separate devices. What I am trying to do is provide all field personnel with one common interface to see all underground utilities beneath their feet—[so] one shared vision via a shared interface.”
Tesla is another company that uses digital twin technology for maintenance and repairs. The automotive company famously creates digital twins of all the vehicles it sells to determine where issues might occur and reduce the likelihood of car owners having to go to a servicing station.
Healthcare is another industry where the potentials of the industrial metaverse are proving to be immense.
At this year’s Web Summit, Atul Gupta, Chief Medical Officer at Philips, spoke about image-guided therapy technology, an approach that combines AI, AR, photorealistic rendering, radiation-less and radiation-free ways of imaging to treat patients. This results in minimally invasive therapies to treat a number of health conditions, such as heart attacks and strokes.
Gupta also envisions an operating room where AR will be a key part of the process. For example, AR could allow surgeons and nurses to place their own digital customised screen exactly where they want them, showing data catered to their needs, instead of everyone in the room having to share one big monitor broken down into windows.
By responding to voice commands, eye tracking and intuitive gestures, surgeons and nurses would be able to control the screen in order to access the data they need, without having to remove their focus from the patient. Moreover, these screens would show anatomy in 3D rather than 2D, resulting in a better understanding. This would make the screen feel like an extension of the surgeon’s or nurse’s hands and mind. It could even allow them to bring in experts from the next door, or even continents away.
Another AR use case Gupta outlined would be a guided defibrillator accessed through a pair of AR glasses. This would allow anyone to save a person’s life if they are having a heart attack. Such an experience would automatically alert emergency medical services and then offer a visual guide of the steps the person needs to take to use the defibrillator, using computer vision to show users how to place pads on the optimal positions in the body, identifying if CPR is needed, walking the user through the steps of the CPR process and automatically defibrillating when appropriate. Meanwhile, members of the emergency medical team donning their own AR glasses would be able to locate the exact place where the patient is through visual directions, as well as information on the patient’s live vitals.
For Accenture, digital twin technology makes it easier to design physical office locations.
Stakeholders collaborating on new offices can come together in virtual environments and create different virtual model iterations of proposed physical spaces in order to reach a multitude of decisions as to which direction the design should take. This not only leads to better design, but also to lower capital spend, as these digital twins are all created before anything is physically built, or any construction mistakes potentially made.
Onboarding, training and meetings
In an ideal world, every company would bring its employees together for onboarding and/or training sessions. Meeting at a physical location allows workers to get to know the team and the culture of an organisation. However, as companies become more dispersed, this is not always feasible, especially in larger organisations.
Accenture, who hired thousands of employees last year alone, brought people together in the virtual world instead.
Based on Microsoft Space and MESH, employees could access One Accenture Park (the name of Accenture’s virtual world) via a headset or PC. As part of a larger group of other employees, they toured the virtual environment to learn about different Accenture services and participated in problem-solving activities.
Other companies are also using VR and AR technologies to train workers on how to use and maintain specific equipment, as opposed to having them handle physical equipment that may be difficult or dangerous to use in training sessions.
Getting ahead of the industrial metaverse
Like the consumer-focused metaverse that Meta and similar tech companies are building, the industrial metaverse is still being developed.
But that doesn’t mean manufacturers and enterprises can’t take advantage of it today. Forward-thinking organisations are already using technologies like 3D, AR, avatars and digital twins to make their workers’ lives easier.