Wouldn’t it be nice if we could travel in time?

From space travel and self-driving vehicles to video calls and virtual reality, innovations in technology continue to push the boundary between science fiction and science fact. In the power industry, we are witnessing a dramatic transformation, as wireless networking technologies drive advancements in the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing, improving the way we manage, optimize, and deliver the vital energy that fuels our world.

Yet our ability to travel in time appears elusive.

Today, the global power industry sits at a tipping point, with shifting workforce demographics and technologic innovation running in parallel paths, compelling companies to adopt new practices and approaches for advancing their organizations into the future.

We talk about these dynamics in terms of digital transformation, but it’s also a cultural transformation for our industry. We know people and organizations are depending on reliable power, and because of that we have put a premium on risk management and mitigation.

But with the rise of new and emerging technologies that can optimize performance, enhance reliability and resiliency, and maximize operational flexibility, we cannot afford to remain at a standstill. Organizations that encourage experimentation and collaboration among technology leaders are not only digitally transforming; they are culturally transforming as well.

As our industry develops the next-generation digital workforce, the ability to travel in time becomes even more important. By 2027, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that half of all electric and natural gas utility employees will retire, making it all the more crucial for companies today to harness the tribal knowledge garnered through decades of trial and error.

As the pace of technology advancement increases, digital workers not only need to understand the historical context of an operating event; they need tools that enable them to ask, “What if?”

At Emerson, we believe one of the most fundamental capabilities in the digital transformation roadmap is the digital twin. Digital twins enable time travel by providing an environment for real-world “what-if” simulations, allowing leaders to transfer decades of knowledge to next-generation workers in half the time.

Up until recently, technology has limited the time-travel abilities of the digital twin to mere moment-in-time snapshots. For an industry facing zero margin for error, this time lapse, in which the simulation is not continuously updated to reflect the live system, creates inherent risk to the plant.  Without these real-time updates, this type of digital twin becomes obsolete almost as soon as it’s created.

However, imagine an operator has access to an exact, real-time digital replica of the live plant that continues updating as the plant reacts to changing operating conditions. The operator could then travel into the future to see how the plant would respond to an altered piece of control logic.

This is Emerson’s vision with the embedded digital twin, and we are working closely with utilities to create secure solutions that help them identify and address inefficiencies, improve safety and test new approaches to plant operation as they progress in their digital transformation journey.

Embedded technologies are one way new and evolving digital-twin technologies are pushing the science-fiction boundaries of time travel. Other capabilities, such as virtual reality (VR), can add an entirely new layer. For example, a Korean power company is using VR to provide a truly immersive experience that catapults digital-twin simulations into 3-D, allowing next-generation operators to explore possibilities while engaging firsthand with the knowledge and training of their predecessors.

As automation and IoT technologies transform the power industry, continued enhancements to digital-twin capabilities can help companies realize stronger returns. Through technology, the power industry has the ability to travel through time, retaining the vital institutional knowledge that has led us here today, while creating opportunities to leverage the skills of tomorrow’s digital workforce.

Robert Yeager is president of Emerson’s Power and Water Solutions business.