Industrial metaverse technologies are set to transform the operations, production and management of core industrial processes, as Nick Gibson explains.
Industrial metaverse applications in design, production, supply and distribution processes offer major improvements in cost, efficiency, real-time reporting and corporate governance. But what is the metaverse and how will industry prosper in the coming virtual future?
The metaverse, an interconnected network of virtual worlds, is a digital extension of existing real-world industrial processes and in its many forms will drive the mainstream economy. Analysts forecast the global metaverse to be a $750 billion market opportunity by 2030 as business and industry moves to exploit the growing future trend.
Technologies driving the industrial metaverse include virtual reality, augmented reality, digital twins, blockchain, 5G and edge computing all offering real-world improvements and digital transformation of core processes across major industrial sectors.
“The metaverse is still in very early stages and continues to present a great deal of mystery and what it will eventually turn out to be is still to be defined,” James Morris-Manuel, md and vp of EMEA at Matterport says. “Yet with everything we do know it will likely have a seismic effect across multiple industries. The potential is immense; made up of billions of digital twins and augmented reality scenarios the metaverse could fundamentally change the way industry, business and consumers experience, interact with, and analyse the physical environment. The real challenge is identifying what these changes will look like.”
Industrial metaverse: a clear vision
Paul Ceely, director of technology strategy at Digital Catapult, has a clear vision of practical applications and benefits offered by virtual world technologies. “I view the industrial metaverse as a combination of advanced digital technologies to help improve processes from training, to design and operations in an industrial environment,” he says. “Real-world examples include using VR to bring remote groups together to collaborate on a virtual construction site, augmented reality to train maintenance staff efficiently, or using digital twins to simulate a transport network as already being explored for the new Elizabeth line.”
Infrastructure supporting the industrial metaverse includes hardware, AR and VR devices, MR devices, displays, software, extended reality software, gaming engines, 3D mapping, modelling and reconstruction, metaverse hubs and platforms, financial platforms, geospatial mapping tools and cloud-based software. Custom support includes the need for professional services, application development and system integration, strategy and business consulting.
“In blending the physical and virtual worlds the industrial metaverse requires development of a ‘cyber physical’ infrastructure to accommodate a whole host of technologies,” Ceely adds. “Combined these technologies are significantly more powerful, from the Internet of Things to 5G connectivity for high performance visual interactions, and even artificial intelligence and machine learning for modelling and simulation.”
The industrial metaverse, in fomenting large-scale virtual representations of real-world physical environments, will power the rise of robotics, autonomous machines, drone delivery and use of autonomous vehicles as well as automated intricate repair work on machinery.
Digital Twins and the ‘metafactory’
Digital twins, dimensionally accurate 3D virtual replicas of physical objects and locations, are being used in industry for product design, production lines, training, maintenance and real-time process management to improve efficiency, reduce operating costs and secure reporting governance.
“Digital twins will bring online a mass of analogue data that can be searched, modelled, and ultimately used to derive value from physical objects and spaces,” Morris-Manuel continues. “There is immense value in accruing this data and applying the insights generated from it to improve both businesses and society at large. This data and the ability to source it, search it and utilise it will open a vast array of future opportunities and evolve infinite applications. Successful businesses will be those who ensure digital twins are included in strategic planning both to optimise their own productivity and operations and to offer new experiences to end-users as the metaverse grows.”
The industrial metaverse is rapidly being embraced by major manufacturers: Hyundai is creating a digital twin-based metafactory; chemical company Linde uses metaverse VR to train employees in the oil & gas industry; General Electric uses augmented reality to create virtual twins of gas turbines for real-time monitor and control; BMW aims to create virtual twins of 31 factories to allow global collaboration in real-time 3D.
Enabling innovators to work on digital twins and immersive technologies has the potential to be truly transformational for industry, Ceely believes. “Digital twins can greatly improve response to systemic issues. In practice this could mean running simulations or analyses to slash emissions, identify productivity lags in manufacturing and streamline supply chains.”
The internet of things: interoperability is key to success
The metaverse is a super-sized version of the internet of things where everything is connected to everything else. For consumers it is video doorbells, smart meters and fridges connected to an online store. For industry it is integration of physical and digital processes, and interoperability between these worlds is vital.
“The success of the metaverse will rely on the ability to unify systems, platforms, and economies in terms of incentives and benefits tied to the physical world, which remains a critical challenge to be addressed,” Kiran Kumar, ICT research director at Frost & Sullivan, says.
Interoperability is key but remains difficult to achieve; a lack of interoperability is still an impediment in the immersive space, Ceely says. “Industrial environments are typically made up of products from multiple vendors but what we need is open and interoperable infrastructure on which various applications can be used.”
Core elements that enable and protect the industrial metaverse include 5G connectivity, blockchain, data centres and cybersecurity.
5G connectivity offers 10 times more speed than wireless connectivity and will revolutionize industry across all sectors. Delivering higher speeds, greater bandwidth, ultra-low latency, more reliability and massive network capacity 5G will connect virtually everyone and everything together including machines, objects and devices.
Blockchain is a distributed database or ledger (DLT) that is shared among the nodes of a computer network. Information is stored in digital format as a secure and decentralized record with a blockchain guaranteeing fidelity and security of a record of data as information and history are irreversible. Blockchain use in industry includes production activity, legal contracts, IP details, technical documentation, product inventory and financial transactions. The UK currently has 249 companies developing blockchain software and services.
Data centres are key to powering the industrial metaverse as applications demand continuous high-bandwidth data transfers with minimal latency. Increased demand will require massive investments in network equipment. Raja Koduri, head of Intel’s Accelerated Computing Systems, believes there will need to be more data centres and a 1,000 times increase in power to achieve the full potential of the metaverse.
Cybersecurity and data governance is an existing challenge to industry and the growth of metaverse technologies and applications will demand greater vigilance and dedicated measures to secure vital industrial processes.
Industrial metaverse: are we ready?
“While conversations around the industrial metaverse are in their nascency we are steadily moving in the right direction with early-stage trials and the development of proof of concepts of augmented technologies in industrial settings already underway,” Ceely says. “Integration and interoperability remain the biggest challenges. Industry and regulators must focus on building common standards, ways of working and above all, a diverse self-sustaining ecosystem of companies, products and platforms.”
Morris-Manuel is confident that industry can address and overcome challenges posed by the future virtual world. “As with any new technology there are potential challenges with the metaverse. Firstly, will there be many smaller metaverse’s or one large metaverse? It remains to be seen as different industries have different ideas of what the metaverse will look like and can be used for. Over time I believe these challenges will become clearer and companies will identify and solve problems as they develop.”