Digital Twin Technology – Why Should We Talk About it?

Date: May 30, 2019

Author: Ipshita Biswas

What is a Digital Twin?

The definition of a digital twin in its simplest form would go like this – a digital replica of a physical object, which can be a product, a process or a service. It bridges the gap between the physical and the digital worlds with the aid of sensors to collect data from the physical item in real-time. The concept of digital twins has been around since the 1970s, yet its widespread popularity gained momentum only in the last few years. Since its inception, Digital Twins has been called by several different names, like Virtual prototyping, Hybrid twin technology, Virtual twin and Digital asset management.

How did the concept of a Digital Twin evolve?

“The ultimate vision for the digital twin is to create, test and build our equipment in a virtual environment.” -John Vickers, NASA

Over the years, the definition of Digital Twins has evolved while keeping the same essence. In 2010, NASA defined Digital Twins as highly detailed simulation models for its spacecrafts or other vehicles, with the purpose of closely replicating the behaviour of the physical objects in order to monitor and predict repairs when the same cannot possibly be done for the physical objects.

Right from its earlier days of space exploration, NASA has been using ‘pairing technology’, which is known as the precursor to ‘digital twin’ technology, in order to maintain and repair systems that were outside of the purview of physical examination. The Apollo 13 mission – which was supposed to be the 3rd mission to land on the moon – had to be aborted due to an explosion in one of the oxygen tanks, which was detected some time after the launch. The engineers on Earth planned the rescue operation using pairing technology. Read more on this here.

With time, simulation tools for industries other than space started using the term ‘Digital Twins’. This inspired Siemens, who gave the term a new interpretation: that of a dynamic 3D model of either a production unit or a machine.

Thanks to the development of sensors, NASA is now able to use digital twins to gather data on its spacecrafts and its crew members and accordingly make recommendations and plan for new spacecrafts as needed. Apart from taking care of maintenance, digital twins can help to enhance customer experience too.

“In the year 2002, Michael Grieves first used the terminology at the University of Michigan.”

Where are Digital Twins used?

Digital Twins finds its use in a wide variety of industries. Some such examples are – Healthcare – Creating a digital replica of a hospital and all its staff, machinery and patients can help in creating a safe environment with efficient availability of patient care. With a real-time 3D model, the ease with which emergency cases are taken care of should improve. Digital replicas of humans and organs are not far behind in providing insights and performing stimulated procedures in order to test the outcomes beforehand.

Manufacturing -This sector has so far seen the majority of the use of digital twins. The deployment of a digital twin helps in increasing production efficiency, employee and customer satisfaction. Digital Twins will help manufacturers to monitor performances and predict maintenance in real-time without having to interrupt the usual workflow of the equipment. Digital twins fetch the manufacturers millions of data points and enable them to make informed decisions.

Automotive Automotive is one of the fastest-growing industries today. A number of technologies concerning safety have taken shape, like DMS and Vehicle Telemetry. While these systems are driver-focussed, digital twins of a vehicle are more overall vehicle health-focussed. Especially with the emergence of self-driving cars, it becomes all the more important to have a real-time digitised version of the actual car.

What is the future of Digital Twins?

A full-fledged digital twin hasn’t yet penetrated many industries. But the potential is huge. For organisations that have already embraced IoT, digital twins are the next step into the journey of digitization. As Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is getting stronger, communication between digital twins are expected to be more effective. So, in the future, individual digital twins can be expected to have better intercommunication and provide more insightful information.

In the future, digital twins are expected to be adopted by a greater number of different industries beyond Space, Medical, Manufacturing and Automotive.

Augmented and Virtual reality will become closer-knit with the concept of Digital Twins, preventing the need to interact with the physical asset unless it’s really needed. This association will also open the door for the penetration of digital twin technology in consumer electronics.

The evolution of Digital Twins is closely related to the evolution of IoT. As IoT sensors become more and more powerful, the complexities and costs associated with Digital Twins devices are expected to diminish.

Related Technologies

When we talk about the digital representation of physical object, it can denote a lot of other technologies rather than digital twins.

BIM or Building Information Modelling is one such technology that can be easily confused with a digital twin. BIM is very important to contractors of large projects. BIM is tailor-made for design and construction. The primary intent of BIM is to help architects and constructors make the buildings. Thus, it need not be a real-time, functional model of a building.

Digital Twins are known as digitized version of their physical counterparts, but there are considerable differences between ‘digitization’ and ‘Digital Twinning’. Digitization refers to the creation of a digital version of a physical object either to create a copy or to make the physical object redundant. For instance, when we scan a physical photograph and save it in the drive, the physical photograph loses nearly all its significance. This is an example of digitization. On the other hand, a Digital Twin can never replace its physical counterpart. It just mimics its physical counterpart and holds significance throughout the lifetime of its physical counterpart.

RTLS (Real-time Location System) is one such technology which can aid in creating ‘Digital Twins’. The real-time data received from RTLS can be utilized to create a digital replica of a physical space, which is usually a confined area. So, what can be achieved from a robust RTLS system that can take you closer to creating a Digital Twin?

  • The complete map of the confined area
  • Movement tracking of all the objects which are associated with some tags
  • Geo-fencing/alarm alert when an object is found to come near an unauthorized area.

So, an RTLS system, in combination with other imaging technologies, AL, ML etc. is a step towards creating a ‘Digital Twin’.

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