With digital twin technology, we’re witnessing the next big tech leap: the bridging of physical assets with intelligent virtual models.
This digital/physical interface has taken its place at the forefront of what many are calling the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” It relies on harnessing the potential of technologies like smart devices, big data, machine learning, and even virtual reality. As digital twins take root, we’ll likely see its effects in most businesses, and even in our personal pursuits.
But digital twinning isn’t new. The idea originated with NASA’s tech-mirroring methods, and later it was pitched as a full-fledged concept in 2002. It might have remained a mere concept if not for the subsequent rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). As a result, Gartner has listed digital twin technology among its Top 10 Strategic Trends for the past two years. In addition Gartner predicted that, by 2021, half of all large industrial companies will have adopted digital twin technology.
You’ve encountered the digitization process somewhere in your life. Books have become ebooks. Music has transitioned to MP3 files. The concept of digital twinning is similar, but also slightly different.
Think of a video game. You have an on-screen avatar—your digital twin—but the creation of that on-screen copy doesn’t eliminate you. It merely expresses you and your actions in a digital environment. The difference is that if your avatar was a true digital twin, it wouldn’t remain static. Imagine if you changed your clothes, the avatar’s outfit updated automatically to match. Or if you broke your arm in real-life, your avatar is likewise unable to use his or her arm.
Digital twinning involves mapping out a physical asset, object, process, or system, and creating an evolving virtual replica. By incorporating smart sensors in the physical asset, you can gather real-time data. That data then updates the state of the digital twin, enabling it to act as a remotely accessible proxy.
Though digital twin technology is currently employed primarily in the manufacturing industry, that’s quickly changing. As other markets tap into the Internet of Things, you’ll see more of businesses constructing digital twins of their own so they can take advantage of:
Manufacturers understand the expense that goes into designing and producing a prototype. You could go through multiple iterations of prototypes before coming up with a working version. It’s a long, costly process—one verging on obsolescence. What many companies do now is, before they even start on a physical prototype, they create the digital twin. This virtual prototype can undergo simulations and tests to provide feedback that improves the eventual physical prototype. Because the virtual prototype exists in a digital environment, it’s also easier for geographically diverse teams to collaborate on the design without meeting in person.
The gathered data used to create digital twins can predict when equipment maintenance is needed and even when breakdowns will occur. Timely reporting of these needs to human monitors can save companies both time and money, and reduces downtime for necessary repairs.
Digital twins’ contributions extend beyond a product’s design phase and its actual lifecycle. The twin can also answer critical questions about how an asset will respond to stresses and different conditions. Then you could analyze the data and determine what the impact would be to the physical copy. Seeing how this component, and other smart assets, might react individually and collectively can influence future operational decisions.
Several leading names in manufacturing and design have leveraged digital twin technology to improve production and performance. Here are a few prominent examples.
During the early days of the U.S. space program, NASA had to tackle several challenges. A leading one was how to diagnose and repair spacecraft malfunctions in space. NASA created a mirrored (or paired) system where a copy of the shuttlecraft and its systems was kept in reserve. When Apollo 13 experienced catastrophic malfunctions, NASA’s mirrored system made it possible to simulate conditions. That way, engineers and astronauts could deduce what the problem was, test possible solutions, which helped save the crew. Currently, NASA uses digital twins to find similar fixes for its aircraft and probes.
BP (British Petroleum) relies on digital twins to visualize its extensive facilities in Alaska. Using smart, virtual replicas of its pipes, BP’s engineers can sit in an office and monitor the condition of thousands of pipes and connections buried beneath the snow. Sensors indicate when a piece of equipment is failing and requires maintenance.
General Electric uses digital twin technology to monitor and control the turbines on its wind farms. Like BP, General Electric’s virtual copies can forecast energy output and identify problem spots before they create an issue.
Siemens deploys digital twins to safeguard its investment in expensive gas turbines. The turbines feature over 500 sensors that transmit data like pressure and temperature to engineers. Using the data, these engineers can gauge the turbine’s performance and run tests without taking the physical turbine out of commission.
Cities like Singapore are exploring the potential benefits of creating a digital twin of the city. The hope is that the digital twin will compile real-time data alongside building materials, structural dimensions, and infrastructure specs. This collection of data would yield valuable insights city officials could use to inform public policy, safety measures, and environmental concerns.
In the future, expect to see the expansion of the IoT, and with it, some version of digital twin technology. According to predictions, by 2022, 85 percent of all IoT platforms will include some kind of digital twinning.
As more and more products in our homes and workplaces evolve into smart devices (i.e., they connect to the Internet, providing remote access and control), we’ll also see an increase in the availability of digital twin technology. These digital twins already allow you to remotely adjust the temperature in your smart home, for example. Or to make calls using your business number on a “softphone” that’s available on all your personal devices.
Onboarding new technology into the workplace brings with it a hosts of risks.
But the most compelling question may be: “Does this technology represent the new normal? Will I have to adopt it eventually? Do I delay the inevitable now to save money in the short-term, though it may cost me in the long term?”
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