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New centre for digital twins: "The idea of being able to design and debug the entire system before you build it is absolutely fantastic"

24-year-old Christian Møldrup Legaard is studying for an MSc in Engineering in computer engineering. He will soon be a part of Aarhus University's new Centre for Digital Twins, and he believes that this new trend in digital systems can save a lot of money and grey hair.

2019.05.06 | Jesper Bruun

"Designing electronic systems today is very often a matter of trial and error, and it costs a lot of money and takes a long time. If you can make the workflow simple and virtual with a model that simulates perfectly the finished product, you can save an awful lot of time and money," says Christian Møldrup Legaard, who, as an MSc in Engineering student will be attached to the new AU Centre for Digital Twins, which opens on 6 May. Photo: Ida Marie Jensen, AU Foto.

On Monday 6 May, Aarhus University will be opening its new AU Centre for Digital Twins - Denmark's first centre for digital twins, and one of the world's first attempts to work critically and academically on the topic in a research context.

In addition to the research and industrial value, the new centre will also have an impact on the university's many engineering students. This is the view of the 24-year-old Christian Møldrup, who has a Bachelor in electronics, and is now doing an MSc in Engineering in computer engineering.

Christian builds robots. Small, relatively simple robots with just one purpose: They follow a line. This may not seem exactly high-tech, but actually it is.

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While the robot is tumbling around following a black marker-pen line, a virtual model on a computer is behaving precisely the same way as the robot does. Fed with data from the robot in real time, the model will immediately be able to tell Christian why the robot is doing as it is doing, how it could do things better and more efficiently, and exactly why things go wrong if they do go wrong. 

The virtual model is called a digital twin, and it is one of today's hottest trends for Industry 4.0 companies. The idea is to create a complete digital copy of a physical system: for example a wind turbine or a car. A digital twin is so accurate that it acts, reacts, ages and fails in the virtual world in exactly the same way as the physical twin in the physical world.

The model can simulate its physical counterpart to the extent that provides completely new insight. The digital model can test and develop the product and determine the consequences of changes long before the physical twin is built in real life.

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This has great value for electronics and software engineers, for example according to Christian:

"Through my degree programme in electronic engineering, I’ve helped develop several different types of systems. But the problem is that complex electronic systems simply never really work the first time you put them together, and it's always a major hassle to troubleshoot the system," he says, and continues:

"For example, we built a self-driving racing car in a semester project. Of course, this contained a number of different components that we knew we would need for it to work: An engine, something to steer it with, image recognition so we could find our way, etc. Then you can sit there and bash away on your computer, put everything together and hope it works. But it rarely does. There's always something wrong. The Idea of designing everything virtually with a digital twin instead, so that you can debug the system before you build it, is therefore very appealing and it saves a lot of time."

 

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Christian Møldrup (right) with his supervisor Professor Peter Gorm Larsen (left), who will be the head of the new Centre for Digital Twins. Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo. 

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This was actually what motivated him to take a Master's degree in computer technology instead of continuing in the electronics track.

"You could say that I've gone from a close-to-hardware programme to a more software-based programme. Designing electronic systems today, is very often a matter of trial and error. In other words, you sort of feel your way forwards, and this can cause a lot of grey hair. It costs a lot of money, and it takes a long time, because a system isn't just electronics. The whole thing has to be tested together to find out whether it also works together. Imagine that you want to try a new type of gear in a wind turbine, for example. If you have to make it at full scale and then test it out, it's insanely costly. But If you make the workflow simple and virtual with a model that, to perfection, simulates the finished turbine, you can save an incredible amount of time. And for a guy like me who loves electronics, it means that you can better see the overall project. It just makes everything much more fun," he says.

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Therefore, Christian will also be involved when the Department of Engineering opens the AU Centre for Digital Twins:

"I don't know all that much about digital twins yet. I’m working on some projects, for example with these robots, but I’ll be getting much more involved when I do my Master's thesis project, which will merge digital twins with machine learning. It’ll be very exciting, and it’ll probably also move some boundaries to what we can do."

The AU Centre for Digital Twins officially opens on 6 May 2019. But even though Christian is already affiliated to the centre, he will have to wait until 2020, before he can really get started on his large project. In the autumn semester, he is going on an exchange to the internationally recognised university, KU Leuven in Belgium with his girlfriend, who is also studying for an MSc in Engineering in computer engineering.

Department of Engineering