Today, it seems, every business is seeking digital transformation, taking advantage of diverse data streams to find new ways to organise, analyse, and utilise assets to increase profitability, ensure sustainability, and create new value. Digital twinning, as a concept that strongly connects the physical and virtual worlds, is a pillar of this digital transformation.
The business world has not yet reached a complete consensus on the definition of a digital twin. Some see it as a means of richly simulating a product long before it becomes a physical object, to aid design analysis, eliminate defects, anticipate manufacturing challenges, and so reduce development costs and time to market. Others see the value in creating a virtual version of each individual unit deployed in the field, augmented in real-time using live sensor data to mirror the status of the physical twin and so assist customer support – by enabling condition-based or predictive maintenance, for example. The data can also be used to inform future product development.
A report by Deloitte Consulting into Industry 4.0 and the digital twin offers a flexible definition, referring to the digital twin as “an evolving digital profile of the historical and current behavior of a physical object or process that helps optimize business performance”.
As a general perspective, this definition encompasses both in-house and field-based visions. But to understand the idea better, perhaps we should ask a different question: not “What is it?”, but “What use is it?”
Companies will implement digital twin strategies to achieve improvements, such as fixing problems faster, increasing equipment reliability, creating new services and revenue streams, reducing costs, overcoming internal barriers, accelerating service delivery, and increasing customer satisfaction. There are many potential applications, and companies can take a first step by “dipping a toe” into the world of the digital twin, and develop their strategy as understanding and ambition inevitably grow.
A simple strategy could deliver value quickly by helping to personalise services for customers. Capturing real-time data from units in the field can show usage patterns and maintenance activities on a per-customer basis. This provides the opportunity to tailor customer-support services and schedules individually. The next step could then be to create new value-added services and customer experiences, possibly offering upgrade options that can realise new revenue streams.
Going further, digital twin simulations can be used to analyse the performance of customers’ equipment in real-time, to drive condition-based servicing for greater efficiency and uptime, and prevent breakdowns before they occur.
Within the organisation, companies can harness a digital twin strategy to gain extra insights for enhancing product design and quality. Using real-world data that shows product performance and behavioural patterns over time, digital-twin simulations allow engineers to study how various design changes can improve metrics such as reliability or quality, and compare the potential gains against other important factors such as cost.
Knowledge sharing between employees can also be enhanced. Two- and three-dimensional visual representations, augmented with real-world data, help teams quickly understand complex scenarios, and training can be accelerated with the aid of contextual information. A digital twin strategy also provides the opportunity to generate proactive guidance tailored to support almost any role from design through procurement, manufacturing, installation, field maintenance, service, and decommissioning. This may be delivered in various forms such as visual, audible, or using augmented reality.Going forward, digital twin can become even more powerful by utilising AI to perform complex analyses such as running “what-if” scenarios to further accelerate product development, enhance operator training, or anticipate unexpected events.
Broadening the Benefits
Arguably, the world-changing power of the digital twin lies in its applicability to systems or processes that historically have been simply too complex to model using traditional simulation or analytical methods. Historically, only large enterprises with their own powerful industrial Internet platforms have been able to harness its potential. Early use cases have included monitoring high-value assets such as aircraft engines or large turbine generators. Now, however, the emergence of IoT technologies combined with easy and affordable access to powerful Cloud services is opening up the power of digital twin to more and more enterprises of different types and sizes seeking digital transformation, to manage assets such as vehicles, industrial machines, or medical technology, infrastructure such as roadways or rail tracks, or services such as logistics or supply-chain support.
Already, a majority of executives are planning to incorporate digital twinning in their business strategy by 2020, according to a 2017 report by Research and Markets. The ultimate democratisation of the concept may come with the adoption of digital twin strategies at a municipal level, to enhance the lives of everyone by helping to manage smart cities, smart buildings, and environmental care.
The Author – Mark Patrick
Mark joined Mouser Electronics in July 2014 having previously held senior marketing roles at RS Components. Prior to RS, Mark spent 8 years at Texas Instruments in Applications Support and Technical Sales roles and holds a first class Honours Degree in Electronic Engineering from Coventry University.