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How Softiron used digital twins to reduce its carbon footprint

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A few years back, Softiron, which makes data center hardware for software-defined storage, turned to digital twins to help optimize its hardware, not just for cost and performance, but also to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint. A recent assessment by ESG investment firm Earth Capital found that these efforts are paying off.  

SoftIron’s latest products generate about 20% the heat of comparable enterprise storage products and consume as little as 20% of the power of comparable offerings. In total, Earth Capital estimates every 10 petabytes of storage installed translates to savings of about 6,656 tons of carbon, compared to industry norms. 

SoftIron’s COO Jason Van der Schyff detailed how the company has used digital twins to achieve such impressive gains in an exclusive interview with VentureBeat. The exec also explains how they brought environmental considerations into their design workflow for both the products and the factories that build and ship them. This helped them recognize that a focus on I/O rather than CPU performance could help them hit enterprise requirements and sustainability goals. 

VentureBeat: How do you go about building digital twins to optimize your carbon and energy footprint?

Jason Van der Schyff: At SoftIron, we use a variety of digital twinning strategies across our physical products and our facilities and supply chain to determine and analyze our carbon and energy footprint. Our products are entirely digitally modelled, from the foundational circuit boards to mechanical components and all internal active and passive components. This allows us to not only model the thermal performance but also analyze both indigenous and foreign influences, such as vibrations induced from harmonic oscillations caused by cooling fans – an innovation we were recently awarded a patent for. This type of analysis in a digital form allows us to adapt our designs to create less heat, use less cooling and therefore less energy, allowing us to provide our customers with some of the lowest power consumption in the market and aid them in their carbon reduction goals.

With respect to our manufacturing, digital twins provide efficiency in designing and deploying new manufacturing techniques. It enables us to model digitally the impact of design changes in the production workflow across our various manufacturing sites before it ever manifests in the real world – all without wasting materials. 

SoftIron’s factory digital twin enables innovation from our manufacturing center of excellence in Berlin. There we are able to model and control our global manufacturing footprint as a single global capability. While this modeling sometimes happen thousands of miles from where actual production is taking place, it means that the physical product can be manufactured close to the point of consumption and in a way is able to utilize local supply chains, all of which has a positive impact on both supply chain resilience and sustainability. Digital twinning underpins this strategy – which we call “Edge Manufacturing.”

VentureBeat: What kind of tools do you use to store the raw data and share it among different stakeholders in the process?

Van der Schyff: As a designer and manufacturer of enterprise storage, SoftIron chooses to deploy our digital twin on our own infrastructure in our facility in Berlin, with real-time resilience provided by geo-replication across our facilities in California and Sydney. A unified internal network allows all collaborators direct access in real-time to collaborate and contribute to the iteration of the digital twin designs.

VentureBeat: What is involved in identifying some of the biggest contributions to inefficiency and then mitigating these in the final products?

Van der Schyff: The bulk of inefficiencies is introduced through waste, be it wasted power, extraneous componentry or even manufacturing wasted time. By developing a digital twin throughout the development process, we’re able to model and analyze inefficiencies in the design and functionality of our products. This improves quality and minimizes rework. Our manufacturing floor is further modeled to provide accurate time and motion studies and utilize a variety of layouts to optimize efficiency before physical construction is completed to further mitigate inefficiencies.

VentureBeat: What have been some of your discoveries around the specific improvements or changes that led to the most significant impact?

Van der Schyff: Early in the history of the company, by modeling the performance and interaction between the hardware and software layer, we were able to determine that software-defined storage is primarily an I/O problem rather than a compute problem. This discovery informed the selection of components and the adoption of a low power ARM64 architecture to provide highly performant, yet economical storage appliances. These low-power appliances provide savings such that for every 10 PB of data storage shipped by SoftIron, an estimated 6,656 tons of CO2 are saved by reduced energy consumption alone in the customer data center over its lifetime.

VentureBeat: How do digital twins fit into this process?

Van der Schyff: Digital twins provide open access to all data in one place increasing cross border and asynchronous collaboration. Through this collaboration, SoftIron can bring cross-functional expertise to each design, be it a product or a manufacturing process, to observe and mitigate inefficiencies and exploit opportunities to optimize our carbon and energy footprint. 

The significant supply chain disruptions we have seen over the last year or more have only highlighted the weaknesses in the way IT is currently produced. In this way, we believe that sustainability and resilience are inextricably linked. Manufacturing has historically placed all of its eggs in a few very large, low cost, baskets in the world – driving for every increased volume of smaller and smaller component variation in order to drive out costs.

Digital twinning is one enabling technology (along with the current generations of super flexible, efficient low-volume assembly line machinery) that helps to break the cost-to-volume equation apart. This fosters small, distributed manufacturing operations, opens up the supply chain to more local, perhaps lower volume suppliers and, over time, enables a more resilient, sustainable, global IT industry to emerge. SoftIron, we believe, is at the vanguard of this, but we expect this model to become more widespread over the coming decade.

VentureBeat: What’s next?

Van der Schyff: As SoftIron expands its Edge Manufacturing strategy, further opportunities will become available to optimize our carbon and energy footprint and implement further reductions by shortening supply chains, increasing local recycling opportunities and drastically reducing the amount of energy spent in delivering SoftIron’s low-energy appliances to its customers.

We believe what we are doing will serve as both a model and catalyst for others to follow. Over the last 12 months we have seen some major announcements regarding developing chip production in the U.S. and Europe and we hope that by the time these facilities come online, there will be a U.S. and European IT manufacturing economy, of which SoftIron is a leading part.

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