Digital twins technology is now affordable by even the smallest companies.
So why are so few using it?
Jay Short / Unsplash.
Data-driven digital twins do what originals can’t: Constantly evolve and improve themselves, and then offer those improvements to the designers and fabricators of real-world products and services.
THE PHYSICAL BECOMES METAPHYSICAL
We increasingly live in two worlds. There is the physical one, tangible and coherent. And there is the invisible one, which the average person scarcely notices. In fact, until very recently, the technologically invisible world has been real and useful only to scientists and high-end designers who have employed virtual representations as mirrors of the physical world, giving them the ability to simulate and predict the behavior of devices, products, systems, and more.
Lately, these representations have come to be known as “digital twins,” but the core technology behind them isn’t new. In fact, they come from a long history of simulation tools and technologies, most of which the average person is familiar with in the form of weather forecasting. We have been collecting and combining weather models, forecasts, and environmental sensor data to simulate future weather conditions for decades.
Today however, as the cost of digital and Smart Systems innovations continues to plummet, the time for digital twin technology to become a signature driver of the future has arrived. The question is: Why are so few using it?
WHAT IS A DIGITAL TWIN?
Digital twins are virtual representations of both the elements and the dynamics of physical entities or processes. They can include current actual operating information, as well as analytics capabilities and a recommendation engine to enable real-time operations. Whether driven by historical or live data-feeds, they provide users with a dashboard view into how the entity is performing at any given moment, as well as what to anticipate in the future.
The digital twin of a complex entity or process actually consists of many models of component parts of the whole, each one pinned to measurement data collected by sensors on the original object or process in the actual world. The complex pipeline of data that informs a digital twin is called a “digital thread,” which is made up of data signatures that can be followed from the original to the twin and back again, showing the source of all the behavior in the twin.
Because digital twins are completely data-driven, they do something that the original can’t do on its own: Constantly evolve and improve themselves, and then offer those improvements to the designers and fabricators of real-world products and services.
For more perspective on software-focused growth ventures, read Harbor Research’s “The Software Paradox.”
KEY DIGITAL TWINS APPLICATIONS
Digital twins can be useful through the entire lifecycle of a product or process, starting with the design phase, before any physical entity has actually been built. This gives designers the freedom to test the behavior of a product or system under hypothetical stresses of various kinds.
When fed with historical or current actual data, digital twins can be used to predict the behavior of a real-world physical system, similar to the way that atmospheric models are used to predict the weather.
Digital twins can be synchronized to their physical originals, leading to valuable business scenarios such as a virtual twin becoming the visible manifestation of a physical original that is remotely installed and not directly observable. A synchronized twin can also be used as an “interface” for manipulating the settings or behavior of the physical system.
Using digital twins to predict the future of living physical systems is so far the stuff of science fiction, but of course science fiction often becomes reality. The 2020 FX/Hulu TV miniseries “DEVS”—written and directed by Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame—toys convincingly with this idea in its pilot episode, where a digital twin, ostensibly powered by a technology firm’s quantum computer, predicts the future behavior of a simple lifeform.
PROMINENT USE CASES
Product Design. Imagine a 3D simulacrum of a new product that not only looks actual but also displays the sources of its behaviors and the effects (for example, heat) generated by its interaction with the environment. Add to that generative design algorithms that increase strength, accuracy and efficiency while significantly reducing weight, 3D printing that makes one-off tests and mass production nearly equivalent, and edge connectivity and processing, and we truly cross the threshold into the future of design.
Industrial Design. Digital twin simulations allow industrial designers to experiment with hypothetical operations layouts and product-flows in a game-like environment that precedes the construction of anything physical. Various scenarios can be tested without capital expenditure, using historical data and greatly reducing real-world risks. Once models are built, actual operating data lets engineers make refinements on the digital twin before implementing any changes in the real world.
Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). Industrial venues, particularly within process and batch industries, can leverage digital twins in order to improve OEE and lower unexpected downtime. Industrial users of this technology can currently simulate assets and processes, performing real-time compensation of forces that previously generated manufacturing inaccuracies.
Smart Cities. Digital twins can help Smart Cities become more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. In addition, city-wide simulations allow stakeholders to optimize response to emergencies like natural disasters, and infrastructure issues like traffic congestion.
Medicine and Healthcare. Digital twins technology is currently hailed as the path toward precision medicine and personalized care. Healthcare researchers and diagnosticians can leverage this technology to simulate a patient’s internal organs and map a personalized recovery plan.
Insurance. Digital twins allow insurance providers to better predict risks, expected costs, and lifespan considerations. The actuarial benefits to the insurance industry have yet to be realized, but are expected to completely disrupt the market.
Training. Simulated models have been widely adopted for training new employees in complex operations contexts. When informed by actual operations data, digital twins provide a risk-free pathway to industrial competence for workers throughout an enterprise. Harbor has written about the power of such simulations, combined with AR/VR, in our recent white paper on Augmentir.
Business Communications and Marketing. The communicative power of digital twins is nearly unlimited. Imagine completely accurate 3D schematics coming to life in VR/AR glasses and literally performing the complex behaviors that language previously struggled to convey. Potential partners and customers can literally walk through anything from a silicon chip to a production environment, a building, or a section of smart city and witness the proposed capabilities of a company’s products.
IT’S TIME FOR SMALLER FIRMS TO LEVERAGE DIGITAL TWINS
The confluence of fast, cheap processors and sophisticated but affordable software has made science fiction-level simulations viable for almost everyone. If you consider that the processors in a contemporary smartphone now exceed the power of supercomputers from the 1990s, it’s clear that even the smallest firms can now benefit from the power of simulations and digital twins.
And yet adoption of this technology has been oddly slow to catch on in any but the largest firms. That will change very soon, but the laggards will suffer to catch up to the vanguard because even low-cost simulation software offers huge capabilities and fast ROI on small investments. It’s time for firms of every size to seize the futuristic advantages of digital twins.
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