René Raaijmakers
25 June

With a game engine under the hood of its digital twin toolbox, Unit040 is leveraging the developments in the gaming industry. The impact of gaming technology on simulation and visualization in high tech has taken the traditional CAD industry by surprise. “We’ve been tapping into the knowledge from the game engine development race for years,” says Guido van Gageldonk, the CTO of Unit040.

In recent years, every self-respecting high tech firm and research institution has embraced digital twin technology. Vanderlande in Veghel is using it to optimize its logistics systems, while research institution Differ is applying it in its fusion reactor research. Imec and Philips are even developing digital twins of the human body.

A few months ago, Gartner published a study showing that the technology is being accepted at a rapid pace. The research agency specifically looked at companies that develop Internet-connected products. One in seven already uses digital twins, Gartner says. No fewer than five of those seven are now introducing the technology or are planning to.

In the Netherlands, digital twins are increasingly mentioned in connection to Unit040, a company that was started in 2006 by five students from Eindhoven University of Technology. It now has a few dozen employees and has already won more than twenty twin projects. It’s striking that the team is booming in a world where giants such as Autodesk, Dassault and Siemens traditionally define the pace of development in design tooling.

The Unit040 founders were among the first group of Industrial Design graduates, a multifaceted education track that approaches problems from many sides – some call it a school for inventors. During their internships, the five students noticed that many companies had difficulty explaining their products, both internally and externally. They decided to visualize the operation of devices and technology. For example, they created a communication tool for a Philips medical scanner. When they saw that it was possible to earn a living with these types of projects, they started an incubator project.

Initially, their services consisted mainly of making animations with little intelligence. But gradually, they started to link their digital models to software. One of the goals was to control the machine animations in the same way you control the actual machines. Around 2011, the first virtual prototypes emerged.

The engineers at Unit040 also came up with the idea to use the Unity3D game engine from the American company, Unity, as the basis for the animations. The biggest hurdle and showstopper, at the time, was the necessary computing power. That rendered a virtual prototype as expensive as its physical counterpart, making it of little interest to most customers.

Technological progress in computing power soon came to the rescue and digital copies became cheaper. Then, four years ago, Unit040 decided to invest heavily in the development of a platform that customers could use themselves. This platform, Prespective, was launched nine months ago.

The results are such that Unit040 expects that it can focus entirely on a license-based business model. “We still need to convince developers to get started with Prespective,” says Guido van Gageldonk, the chief technology officer and co-founder of Unit040. “At the moment, we’re fully occupied, helping customers make their digital twins. But our vision is to stop virtually all our consultancy activities within the next five years and move our business entirely to our digital twin operating system.”

This ambition came another step closer last week when Unity announced that it will be selling Unit040’s digital twin toolbox through its worldwide sales channels. “Unity wants to make headway in the manufacturing industry,” says Daniel Fanego, responsible for business development at Unit040. “With this deal, our sales capacity will increase by seventy people.” Fanego expects the current team of 24 employees to almost double over the coming year.

Unit040 CTO Guido van Gageldonk: “Game engine developers Crytec, Unity, Unreal and Rockstar have all indicated that they want to focus on industrial applications.”

GTA and Fortnite

Where does the digital twin come from? Michael Grieves claims to have used the term for the first time in 2003 during his lectures on product lifecycle management at the University of Michigan. In his vision, virtual representations of reality help improve products and services. Digital twins accelerate machine development and make it possible to improve quality throughout the entire service life.

The desire to simulate reality has been around for much longer. In order to demonstrate the computing power of their workstations, companies like Sun Microsystems already showed in the mid-1990s how they could visualize the logistics of entire factories, including people – although they looked rather crumbly compared to today’s standards.

A quarter of a century later, Unit040, together with Vanderlande, developed a digital twin for a luggage checkpoint at airports, including passengers and security officers. With the real-time simulations, the Veghel-based market leader for baggage handling was able to minimize the bottlenecks in the system. The human animations are of the level that you also find in Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and Fortnite.

“We didn’t call it a digital twin six years ago,” recalls Van Gageldonk. “We didn’t even know the word. At that time, we talked about ‘virtual prototyping’ and ‘virtual commissioning’.”

Unit040 still uses technology that’s also at the basis of animation films and computer games. Developers of games and cartoons define the 3D world in polygons (triangles) and vertices (the points where the sides of these triangles meet). Their software also divides the time into discrete units. “The entire framework is extremely suitable for assigning material properties to the 3D objects that you assemble with polygons and vertices. You can then make calculations using these elements and follow all processes over time,” explains Van Gageldonk.

Autodesk, Dassault and Siemens also jumped on the digital twin bandwagon, but they develop their tooling mainly based on the vector technology with which they previously built their computer-aided design tooling. Its history goes back to the seventies and eighties. In the nineties, analysis options such as finite element calculations were added. Van Gageldonk: “The technology is based on mathematical formulas and vector descriptions. The disadvantage is that simulations, such as complex material analyses, require a lot of computing power.”

Development power

Using technology from the gaming world, Unit040 can take advantage of the developments in an industry that’s much faster than the traditional CAD industry. The Eindhoven company is developing its tools on top of the game engine of Unity, one of the largest developers in this field. “We use Unity3D as a core engine for visualization and simulation. We opted for technology from the gaming industry because this industry is investing much more money in engine development than traditional tool suppliers,” Van Gageldonk clarifies.

The total global market for games is rising to around 150 billion dollars this year. The size of the engine market is expected to grow to 3 billion dollars in 2022. This creates a momentum that’s hard to beat by CAD suppliers like Ansys, Autodesk and Dassault, with turnovers of over 1, 2 and 3 billion dollars, respectively.

The major players in the game engine market, Crytec, Unity, Unreal and Rockstar, have thousands of engineers refining algorithms, game math and software to make games and animations even more realistic. “Four thousand people work at Unity alone. Many of them are refining the mathematical core engines. Siemens NX and the Dassault 3D simulation tooling don’t have that kind of development power behind them. For them, this game is hard to win,” concludes Van Gageldonk.

The Unit040 CTO tells, with some admiration, how things are going in the gaming industry. He gives Epic Games’ Fortnite as an example. “Tens of millions of people have downloaded that game.” The engine behind Fortnite is Engine 4 from Unreal. “In those games, you want visualization and physics to be as realistic as possible. That’s the race the engine developers are holding with each other and we’ve been tapping into that knowledge for years in this industry. Not just us, by the way. There are several companies that have drawn the same conclusion.”

Unparalleled communication

By opting for gaming technology, Unit040 not only profits from developments in software, but from those in hardware as well. “If you chop up the world into small discrete objects, such as polygons and vertices, you can also do parallel calculations on graphics processors much easier,” says Van Gageldonk. “The chip developments at companies such as AMD and Nvidia are going very fast and one of the challenges that core developers have is to continue to exploit the increasing computing power and increasing capabilities of graphics processors.”

In this technology race, it also works the other way around. To gain even more clout, the major engine developers see expansion in other markets as essential to accelerate and improve their technology. Van Gageldonk: “Crytec, Unity, Unreal and Rockstar have all indicated that they want to focus on industrial applications.” Noting that traditional CAD players have received this wake-up call: “Autodesk recently announced a partnership with Unity and Siemens bought Tass International in Helmond at the end of 2017, where they also make a kind of discrete engine.”

According to Van Gageldonk, a company that focuses on the development of an engine that’s only used for its own tooling is, by definition, lagging. “This is a game in a market with exponential growth. At Google, they recognized years ago that the traditional CAD world couldn’t help them. Google engineers developed the technology for self-driving cars based on the Rockstar game engine, which also powers GTA.”

The traditional CAD suppliers may have to overcome some hurdles to compete with digital twin tooling, but this doesn’t render their technology superfluous. In fact, most information for a digital twin, such as 3D models, software, interfaces and electronic diagrams, comes from standard engineering tools. Add to this, the laws of physics, information about gravity, mass and thermodynamics, and the result is a fairly accurate model of the product and its environment.

The benefits are not limited to development. Once a product is in the field or with the customer, sensor information can help improve the digital twin, as well as make a diagnosis or do maintenance.

A digital twin isn’t a replacement for 3D tools, but it is initially fed with the output of existing design tooling. It does, however, add a new abstraction layer, making it easier to see and test the coherence. Digital twins always remain an approach to reality. “But we’re being helped to the fullest by Moore’s law.”

One of the big advantages is that engineering departments get a communication tool that’s unparalleled. Teams and engineers from different disciplines can see and discuss the results of their work together. That helps to break down the traditional barriers between mechanics, electronics, software and mechatronics. Digital twins make it possible for developers to analyze their work more profoundly and prevent problems. Because issues are more visible, all stakeholders are more in line and expensive mistakes can be prevented.

In engineering practice, the major domains continue to develop their parts or modules. “The interesting thing is that everyone keeps their traditional tooling. They won’t be drawing a 3D model or be doing a FEM analysis in our tool. They continue to do that in their world, because it’s much more suitable for that: Autodesk for the geometry, Matlab for the mechatronics, Verum’s Dezyn, Visual Studio, the Cordis Suite or the Festa Suite for the software, EPLAN for the electrical diagrams,” says Van Gageldonk. “Our simulation tooling is meant more for validating whether your assumptions are correct, for communicating between the disciplines. All we do is ensure that those worlds come together in the new platform. This way, we take everything to a higher level.”