“Simply mapping things digitally saves time and money – especially for the New Mittelstand”

An interview with Carina Gliese (Steinbeis Europa Zentrum) and Thorsten Kroke (BCON2 GmbH)

InterOpera is the condensed name for a joint project looking at “digital interoperability in collaborative Industry 4.0 value creation networks.” Funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, the project brings together three consortium partners: Steinbeis Europa Zentrum, the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA), and the Standardization Council Industrie 4.0 (SCI 4.0). The aim of the project is to develop industrial digital twins in the form of submodels in the Asset Administration Shell (AAS). These will used in a variety of sectors of industry and applied to a number of use cases, at all stages of the value chain. The team involved in the project has formed a working group with so-called method consultants, each selected on the basis of the proposed use cases for digital twins. TRANSFER magazine talked about the project with Thorsten Kroke, managing director of BCON2 and a method consultant involved in several InterOpera submodel projects, as well as Carina Gliese, who until August spearheaded the InterOpera project at Steinbeis Europa Zentrum as a network coordinator.

A schematic representation of an I4.0 component consisting of an asset and its asset administration shell
© AAS, InterOpera project/Steinbeis Europa Zentrum, based on Kai Garrels, ABB, Platform Industry 4.0, 2019


Hello Ms. Gliese. Could you give us a brief definition and explain what a digital twin is? And what’s a submodel of the AAS?

A digital twin is a virtual representation of an asset, and an asset can be both a physical or digital entity, which has an actual or perceived value to an organization. So, for example, this could be products, machines, equipment, contracts, technical drawings, or software. Digital twins keep data relating to assets in a digital format. An Asset Administration Shell, or AAS, is the standardized implementation in information technology terms of a digital twin for use in Industry 4.0 [smart manufacturing]. An AAS consists of several submodels, each covering an individual aspect of an asset, and each can operate independently of the others. Submodels contain structural elements. These are represented by features such as values, symbols, or units of measurement. They use semantic identifiers to refer to an entry in a dictionary or a classification system for products and services. An example of such a dictionary is ECLASS, which has unique definitions for different features. This allows an AAS to enable standardized access to information, and this in turn can be used by all kinds of stakeholders, across different manufacturers, at all stages of the life cycle of an asset.

So thinking about New Mittelstand firms – the new generation of SMEs in Germany – in what ways can an industrial digital twin or an AAS support their vision of more meaning and sustainability, of flexibility, of collaboration, and of transparent value generation?

Digital twins help make the processes of industry more transparent, smarter, more efficient, and more sustainable. By harmonizing things and making them interchangeable, or by making it easier for different manufacturers to access data, we can, for example, use digital twins to calculate the carbon footprint of a product much more accurately, and this makes it possible to analyze where savings can be made in the manufacturing cycle or the product life cycle. By making data more transparent, digital twins also enable major advances in terms of traceability, recycling, and overall when it comes to establishing a circular economy and quality management.

Simulations make it possible to understand developments in advance, or the impacts of changes, for example on a product, and if they’re not what you want, they can be avoided without actually having to invest resources in prototypes, or similar things. Digital twins make predictive maintenance easier by monitoring operations and performance in real time, and they do this by pinpointing and resolving problems early that would otherwise result in downtime. So digital twins are of benefit for all of the aspects you mentioned.

Turning to you Mr. Kroke: hello. Could you give us some insights into the InterOpera submodel projects you’ve led and the value they’ve provided. Do you see a link between those projects and the vision of New Mittelstand companies?

We’re project lead on a number of submodel projects: Software Package Manager, Product-Related Environmental Footprint, Facility-Related Environmental Footprint, Computing Platform Resources, Fiber Optic Cables, and Switching Relay. It’s a mixture of projects, from totally specific use cases involving data exchange to products in a sector of industry – such as fiber optic cables and switching relays; from information required by the lawmakers in the two environmental data projects, or interoperable digital data exchange, to software packages and hardware requirements for software.

Simply mapping things digitally saves time and money, especially for the New Mittelstand. The information is available immediately, digitally, and without any loss of information, so it can be re-processed directly. You can also map new business models, such as a ranking of environmentally friendly products, or the digital engineering of products in the value chain.

What would you recommend to companies that are also interested in getting into AAS submodels or digital twins, but haven’t had much involvement in them until now?

We’ve developed some really straightforward software at BCON2 – for exactly that purpose. All you need is online access, an internet connection, and you can get started all by yourself by going to beats.bcon2.com. It’s a good place to learn how to use the AAS, you can access nameplates or the InterOpera AAS, which is really good, or you can just try out hardware requirements for cloud services with AAS Computing Platform Resources. If you need to, just book help on it.

The AAS concept has been well developed on a theoretical level. Do you think transferring it into practice has worked well until now, or are there still obstacles that need to be overcome?

This is where sustainable initiatives like InterOpera are needed. It makes access easier and provides clarification. Otherwise it’s too much effort conducting research and New Mittelstand firms don’t know where to start. What I always recommend is starting small with a use case and trying things out.

What lessons have you learned from your submodel projects?

The AAS has been well designed in technical terms by the Industrial Digital Twin Association (IDTA), and ECLASS offers ingenious semantics, the structural elements of which can map anything. Unfortunately, for lots of people it’s not obvious that they’re only machine-readable technical constructs, and there’s still a prevalence of Excel thinking. But you don’t have to understand every fine detail, you just have to use it. That’s what it’s all about.

Ms. Gliese: InterOpera is nearing the end of the project. Can you already offer a first assessment of how it’s gone, and will there be a sequel?

InterOpera and the communications that went with it, our workshops, and the opportunities to receive support and participate: That definitely helped when it came to demonstrating the advantages of the AAS, not just to SMEs but also other organizations – using actual use cases – and it helped when it came to introducing people to the topic. Also, everyone who participated in the submodel projects was able to gain lots of experience and gather examples of best practice, which will also be beneficial in the future – as will the developed submodels themselves.

As things stand right now, there won’t be a continuation of InterOpera, not in the same form. But it’s still possible to submit ideas to the aforementioned IDTA, for example for submodels, and if a use case is accepted, it will also be implemented.

The IDTA was founded in 2020 and it sees itself as a coordinator when it comes to the topic of digital twins. It offers training and professional development on this topic. It develops AAS submodels itself with lots of members, and it’s establishing the digital twin as open source technology. Even if the members include many big companies, the offering of the IDTA is also aimed at medium-sized companies. There are lots of ways to join in with the working groups and the website also offers plenty of information on the AAS and related topics. So the IDTA is also an excellent port of call when you need to familiarize yourself with the topic of digital twins and gain practical experience.

Further information

InterOpera submodel projects: https://interopera.de/teilmodellprojekte
Industrial Digital Twin Association (IDTA): https://industrialdigitaltwin.org


Alexandra Fezer
Team Manager: Industry 4.0, AI, Economic TransformationSteinbeis Europa Zentrum
Steinbeis 2i GmbH (Stuttgart)

Thorsten Kroke (interviewee)
Managing Director
BCON2 GmbH (Köln)