The metaverse’s most significant potential relates to industrial sectors that serve as the backbone of economies. The industrial metaverse heralds commercial transformations with the industrial version of the emerging computing environment, offering numerous benefits to corporations. Having real-time visibility and instant access to operations will give firms the ability to reconfigure operations constantly as supply and demand of markets change.
Potential benefits of the industrial metaverse are compelling from organisations’ and workers’ perspectives alike. For organisations, the industrial metaverse could improve overall employee engagement and motivation, optimise work (by continuous learning from work performance, for example), attract skilled and diverse employees, increase availability of know-how and experts, increase productivity, renew business models, and promote sustainability. For workers, the industrial metaverse could increase hybrid-work possibilities, improve collaboration and knowledge sharing among practitioners and users, augment skills for tasks, ease collaboration across countries, and even language barriers and varied backgrounds of participants.
Workers will benefit from immersive environments by boosting creativity and innovation skills, increased communication, and clear visual guidance to implement the tasks and prevent errors. In addition, artificial-intelligence (AI) assistants can support decision-making processes.
Nokia is one of the major telecommunications equipment and information-technology providers that will install the infrastructure that any metaverse will require. Nokia Digital Automation offers a platform for industrial digitisation that includes your choice of private wireless connectivity or Wi-Fi, certified ruggedised devices, industrial Edge computing, and a catalogue of ecosystem-neutral applications.
The division’s application program director, Tuuli Ahava, expects the metaverse’s scale and complexity to expand exponentially over coming years, leading to industrial operational-technology (OT) systems increasingly merging with metaverse-related technologies for monitoring and analysis, and even to directly control operations.
Another potential outcome is that enterprises and public-sector organisations will be able to create digital twins of entire environments, such as networks of power grids, rail yards or even entire cities. Then real-time data of unprecedented richness will increase operational insights for users of such immersive technologies. Industrial and corporate users will not only experience the physical world in a virtual space, but also control aspects of their operations via virtual representations.
Ahava also notes that although technologies related to the industrial metaverse are still in their initial stages, they have already become a target, as well as a source of business innovation. Developing and constantly improving digital twins are just one area of such innovations. The blending of digital representations and physical realities is revolutionising many industries by lowering costs, increasing productivity, and offering safety and flexibility gains.
VTT is a Finnish technology centre for applied research, advancing “the utilisation and commercialisation of research and technology in commerce and society”. VTT views global uncertainties, growing competition, rising energy prices and the desire for sustainable operations as drivers of industry transformations. “The industry must therefore become more networked, the level of automation must be further increased, and the outcome and quality of work must be optimised by means of smart technology,” says the company’s lead of smart manufacturing, Karoliina Salminen.
She foresees a similar transformation across economic areas. For example, the industrial metaverse could radically change the way industrial work is done, particularly in labour-intensive sectors from manufacturing to construction to logistics to maintenance operations.
In Salminen’s opinion, the industrial metaverse could help resolve the labour crisis that emerges across many industrial nations with ageing populations and lack of appeal of industrial work for younger generations. Autonomy of applications and system, virtualisation of processes and assets, and a higher degree of place and time independence for workers could expand to commercial and professional domains outside of the industrial sector – once the concepts prove their viability in industrial applications. In other words, the industrial metaverse – with benefits that are readily understood in that economic sector – could become the testbed for commercial change on a much grander scale.
Salminen also believes the industrial metaverse can provide immersive workspaces for human-machine-technology collaboration. Immersive workspaces are collaborative work environments that can provide real-world presence for geographically separated teams and assets – such as robots and drones, for instance – leveraging visual, audio, haptic and other sensory elements. Practitioners and users of such environments will have to become the vanguards that will establish guidelines and best practices for followers and late adopters. What starts at the industrial level will spread to commercial and consumer markets.
Ahava views the digital twin as an early example of how the industrial metaverse will be applied. Digital twins are used for applications ranging from creating ecosystems when planning a new city to working through iterations of manufacturing processes. In industrial environments, digital twins are already transforming enterprise operations. For example, through fusing digital and physical realities, maritime ports have begun using digital twins to track every container on their docks, while aerospace companies are building engines and fuselages in the digital world to simulate exactly how an aircraft will fly.
In practice, Nokia foresees multiple metaverses, or a multiverse. Industrial, enterprise and consumer applications will establish three areas where immersive technologies, augmented and virtual reality, and related computing hardware and software will establish new computing landscapes. Differences exist in purpose, markets and applications, but also cyber security and physical-safety considerations. In addition, different legal requirements between gaming and professional applications exist.
Nokia also sees commonalities across these metaverse. Crucially, these metaverses will likely connect to each other at varying degrees and share technologies, devices and interfaces, [but] they will differ when it comes to applications and business models. In particular, the company sees some of the most significant and extensive potentials of the metaverse in the industrial sector, which serves as the backbone of economies.
It adds that these technologies will still need to develop and improve many of the applications to fulfil the industrial metaverse’s promise. Particularly, digital twins have the potential to revolutionise many industries – cost advantages, productivity increases, and flexibility gains are benefits that most readily come to mind. Monitoring of operations and their analysis and direct control will change the way modern economies work. Interaction between industrial and enterprise metaverses – with its improved communication and collaboration abilities – will drive seamless operations and expand immersive technologies’ benefits across the whole corporate landscape.
Beyond digital twinning of individual machines or devices, the industrial metaverse can reach a much larger scale with increasing complexity by creating digital twins of entire systems such as factories, airports, cargo terminals or cities. Virtual Singapore is a digital representation of the city state created to support its policy decisions and test new technologies. Boeing is using a digital twin development model to design its airplanes, and BMW has created a virtual twin of its production plant in Bavaria before building the physical facility.
In fact, many new factories – including Nokia’s own facility – exist just as much in the digital world as they do in the physical one, allowing the visualisation of operations down to the smallest detail. The interest in digital twins is fuelling expectations for the industrial metaverse. But ultimately, creating digital twins is just one of the many advantages of the industrial metaverse.
Salminen views digital twins at the core of the industrial metaverse, capable of blending the physical and virtual realms to the point that data exchange and interactions become fluid. Digital twins and the internet of things are technical enablers of the industrial metaverse.
Ahava lists related and additional advantages of leveraging an industrial metaverse. The concept extends beyond digital twinning to other valuable applications such as 3D instructional work orders, training and collaboration. Workers stand to benefit from augmented, engaging on-the-job instructions with real-time access to experts for questions and consultation. Metaverse-enhanced remote collaboration allows workers to engage virtually alongside each other with AI, accelerating problem-solving and information-sharing by leveraging cloud-based intelligent, dynamic analytics.
With the ability to iterate infinitely, innovation will become more creative and open, making it possible to run scenarios that would be difficult or even dangerous in the real world. This aspect of the industrial metaverse will provide massive benefits for public safety agencies and the mining industry, to name just some examples.
In a digital environment, storing massive amounts of data enables automated analysis, planning, forecasting and decision-making that is significantly faster and rich in information details. With its use of IoT sensors, AI, machine learning, pervasive data and other advanced technologies, the industrial metaverse and Industry 4.0 share the same vision of intelligent, connected and resilient operations. As a natural extension of Industry 4.0, the metaverse advances the vision with a “virtual-first” approach.
Salminen also looks at market and ecosystem requirements to grow the potential for metaverse applications. Currently, there are multiple offerings that address specific problems in specific companies. This limitation needs addressing to move fragmented applications towards global economies of scale across industrial domains. To drive user adoption and human-driven technology development, companies and markets will have to address the following needs: desirability (including users’ wellbeing and willingness to use the metaverse), viability (of achieving productivity and business benefits), responsibility (through regulation and across processes), and feasibility (such as ensuring technical maturity and achieving economies of scale).
Both technology and non-technology enablers are needed, and both are equally important. Close collaboration between types of metaverse-related technology providers and companies that leverage such metaverses is needed. To create growth opportunities for many currently small enablers, offerings need to achieve cross-industry use potential to multiply the market reach.
Martin Schwirn is the author of Small data, big disruptions: How to spot signals of change and manage uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior advisor of strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.