Digital Twins – Why all the fuss?

What do Twins, NASA, Pokémon Go, the Internet of Things, Big Data and business value have in common?

As our landscape changes to embrace digital integration, the physical and virtual worlds are moving closer together than ever before.

As flagged by Gartner, digital twins are pegged to be a key strategic technology trend for 2020 , and well into the following years too.  Since their inception in 2017, digital twins have enormous potential to create significant opportunity and also cause major disruption.

So, what is a digital twin?

Simply put, a digital twin is a virtual representation, a “twin”, of any physical world object, space, asset, model, or system on which the operations of that physical twin is projected.

It is immensely useful to anyone who needs to understand their physical world by performing analysis, gaining insights and performing simulation and modelling on a platform that acts as a replica twin of the physical twin.

It is so much more than a redundant copy of the physical twin—to use an analogy, in 2016, the world was introduced to Pokémon Go, an Augmented Reality video gaming experience; far different to anything most had previously witnessed. What Pokémon Go meant to gaming, is pretty much what digital twin means for methods of analysis, insights and modelling. In both Pokémon Go and digital twin, immersive augmented and virtual reality literally blends the physical world with the digital world, with the latter helping us gain a new understanding of the former in a way never possible before. In the case of digital twins, this immersive experience allows the user to be immersed as if in the physical space to conduct required analysis, test hypothesis, monitor, correct, etc. – all remotely.

Variants of digital twins are:

  • Composite digital twin – where data from multiple digital twins are aggregated for a composite view across a number of physical world entities such as a power plant or a city; and
  • Predictive digital twin, where machine learning puts our insights and understanding of the physical world on steroids!

Think:

There are endless use cases for digital twins across most industries, including local-, state- and federal government, utilities, universities, retail, manufacturing, defence, healthcare, age care, construction, and so on. Our subsequent article Digital twin – Topical use cases will delve much further into some topical use cases, but here are a few:

  • A domain scientist who needs to understand the acoustics in the pipes of a water network so that pipe bursts can be predicted. This will provide huge cost savings and avoid reputational damage;
  • An urban planner who needs to maximise the amount of residential, business and recreational space with consideration of both pedestrians and vehicle access, movement and connectivity. This will help understand the integration of land use and transport needs; something all cities battle with;
  • Rostering analysts, for example, a residential care organisation that needs to understand the location of field staff and their tasks and skills in order to do more effective rostering and save time. Digital twin can assist in this way to save time and costs and ensure the right skills are at the right place, at the right time;
  • The environmental analyst who needs to monitor and decrease the organisation’s carbon footprint by monitoring CO2 emissions and power generated. This will help achieve carbon offset and ultimately reduce CO2 emissions;
  • An asset planner needs to analyse the performance of an asset, specially through the lens of past history such as servicing, faults, outputs, etc. as well as predicted performance, and a real time monitoring of said asset. This will help optimise all aspects of the asset and ultimately extend its life, reduce life-cycle costs and ensure availability. Assets in this sense are by no means just machinery in a manufacturing plant but ranges from a pool pump in a leisure centre, through to an advanced diagnostic machine in a hospital, or the crane on a construction site;
  • Head of security at a large stadium needs to understand crowd volume and sudden negative sentiment changes where larger groups congregate. This will help proactively deal with crowd security issues immediately, before they get out of hand by moving security personnel around where they are mostly required;
  • An engineer conducting building information modelling (BIM) needs to simulate construction, logistics, and fabrication sequences with the supply chain, and ensure the design takes people flow and emergency evacuations into account. This will help achieve an optimal and safe building will emerge from construction;
  • A university librarian needs to understand the movement of student through the large university library. This will help achieve a better use and mix of space.

Who benefits?

We all do. As is shown in the examples above, those benefiting from the superior insights gained from digital twin are not only those persons who own, manage and operate the physical twins, but us, the consumer (i.e, more targeted aged care), the citizen (a better and cleaner city) and the patient (for example more accurate diagnostics).

Why is it disruptive (‘Houston, we have a problem’)?

The concept of a twin created to understand another is certainly not new. NASA, in the 60s, used twinning ideas to create physically duplicated systems here on earth to match the systems in space, which allowed engineers on the ground to model and test possible solutions, simulating the conditions in space.

When Apollo 13’s lunar module ran into serious problems, such as rising carbon-dioxide that approached life-threatening levels, the engineers on the ground used the duplicates here on the ground to model and test theories and simulations so that they could instruct the astronauts, and eventually get the ill-fated crew of Apollo 13 back to earth alive.

The value in NASA’s replicas, or the many replicas since then, including motor vehicle design wind tunnels, mini wave and tidal pools, etc. and undeniable. But of course, the NASA, and subsequent replicas where physical, not digital.

With the advance of computing capacity and the Internet of Things (IOT), digital twins are now gaining traction across so many industries. The physical mirrors can now be replaced with digital ones and the pervasiveness and reduced cost of IOT means we can monitor what is happening with the physical twin in real time. Throw in machine learning, and all manner of additional insights and modelling are possible.  

So IOT and artificial intelligence (AI) is the miracle mirror, right? Not really. AI augments human capabilities, but it does not replace them. Like  Henk van Houten, Executive Vice President, Chief Technology Officer, Royal Philips, states, “…it was human ingenuity that helped to bring the crew of Apollo 13 home – not technology alone” (https://www.philips.com/a-w/about/news/archive/blogs/innovation-matters/20180830-the-rise-of-the-digital-twin-how-healthcare-can-benefit.html). This means that a digital twin is not meant to be an unsupervised fully intelligent expert system, but rather a platform where a human can analyse and model in order to gain the insight and understanding required. Even when predictive models through machine learning are included, domain subject matter experts must still form part of the analysis process due to their understanding of the physical twin.

In conclusion

Digital twins, as described here, enable users to analyse the physical world, with context sensitive information, without having to traverse the particular physical space (twin). The benefits of this are:

  • A location can be explored at a fraction of the time, compared to actual exploration;
  • Context sensitive information is available immediately, and in real time;
  • And the users react immediately to their experience.

In our subsequent article, Digital Twins – Topical use cases, we will delve much further into some topical use cases and we show why organisations should really consider how digital twins could benefit them.

Our unique product, the exposé Digital Twin is a quick to market, cost effective version of this disrupting technology and provides a truly 360 degree view of your physical world though our highly interactive visual experience, revolutionising the way you interact with your world.