What is a digital twin? It is a question that someone from the manufacturing industry – or with a background in space exploration – might be able to answer, though it might leave others cold.
This, however, is fast changing. Digital twins are likely to become a significant part of many different sectors over the coming years – fuelled in part by the growing Internet of Things.
What is a digital twin?
First, a quick primer. A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical object, system or process. The routes of the concept lie with NASA in the 1960s. The space agency would physically duplicate systems on the ground to match those in space, enabling it to mirror, diagnose and problems that might be taking place hundreds of thousands of miles away. Over time, these physical simulations gave way to fully digital ones. In such models, a software application takes real-world information pertaining to that physical object or system, and produces predictions or simulations which can then demonstrate how that object or system will be affected by different inputs.
In 2017, Gartner named digital twins ones of its ‘top ten strategic technology trends for 2017’, and that really brought the concept into the mainstream. Gartner suggested that within a few short years, ‘billions of things will be represented by digital twins, a dynamic software model of a physical thing or system’. The following year, Gartner followed up on its on prediction by arguing that digital twins were once again set to be a hugely influential and strategic trend.
What are the benefits of digital twins?
The major benefits of digital twins include precisely those which inspired NASA all those decades ago. Creating a replica of a physical or ‘live’ object or system enables experimentation to take place on the replica more easily, quickly and cost-effectively. And once that replica is digital rather than physical, experimentation can take place without causing any permanent changes at all.
Testers and researchers can try out different inputs and ‘wipe the slate clean’ when they don’t meet the desired requirements – or quickly push those inputs to the live scenario if they work well. Testers and researchers can also carry out this work from remote locations and no matter where, or what condition, the physical object is in.
What does all this have to do with the IoT?
The Internet of Things is enabling digital twins to become far more diverse, numerous and sophisticated. This is because the connected devices and sensors which make up the IoT collect precisely the kinds of data needed to build digital twins.
To return to Gartner, 75% of businesses integrating with the IoT are expected to be using – or making plans to start using – some form of digital twin technology this year, across myriad different use cases.
As mentioned above, manufacturing is perhaps the most obvious use case. Digital twins enable product designers and developers to test out their proposals before actually going through a lengthy and costly production process. However, bring the IoT into the mix and digital twins can also be made of equipment on the production line, feeding into proactive approaches to repairs and maintenance. Or, if IoT sensors are embedded in products out in the world, then they can feed into digital twins which enable designers to see how products are actually operating in situ. Designs can then be seamlessly enhanced and amended next time.
The healthcare sector can benefit from the same principles, keeping high-tech and expensive pieces of equipment in optimal condition, or even tracking the performance of remote equipment, such as those in patients’ homes.
And in the automotive industry, digital twins of vehicles can even be used to retrospectively understand why accidents happened. Digital twins also have valuable roles to play in the automotive manufacturing process, helping businesses to test out the implications of using components from different suppliers amidst highly complex supply chains.
Digital twins can even operate on the levels of entire cities, with virtual replications of connected systems such as street lighting, parking, refuse collection and more, ultimately enabling local authorities and governments to run smoother, more efficient and more intelligent public services.
From the space race to touching multiple different industries and everyday lives – digital twins are here to stay.