Digital Twins: What They Are and How They’re Transforming Industries

Digital Twins What They Are and How They’re Transforming Industries

What if you could create a digital twin of anything in the physical world? A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical object, system, or process that runs simulations based on real-world data. By creating a digital twin, you can gain insights into the performance, behaviour, and interactions of your physical counterpart, and use them to optimize, improve, or innovate your products or services.

Digital twins are not a new concept. They have been used for decades in fields such as aerospace, automotive, and defence. However, with the advances in digital twin technology, such as cloud computing, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Augmented Reality (AR), digital twins are becoming more accessible and affordable for a wider range of applications and industries.

In this article, we will explore the types, development, and applications of digital twins. We will also look at some examples of how digital twins are transforming various domains, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and energy. Whether you are a business owner, a developer, or a curious reader, you will find something interesting and useful in this article. So let us get started!

 

Types of Digital Twins

Not all digital twins are created equal. Depending on the purpose and scope of the simulation, there are three main types of digital twins: prototype, instance, and aggregate. Each type has its own characteristics and functions, as well as advantages and disadvantages. Let us take a closer look at each type and some examples of how they are used.

Prototype

A prototype is a digital model of a product or system that is used for design and testing purposes before it is built or deployed. A prototype can help you explore different scenarios, evaluate alternatives, and optimize your design based on various criteria, such as performance, cost, quality, safety, etc. A prototype can also help you validate your assumptions, identify potential issues, and reduce risks and uncertainties.

For example, a car manufacturer can use a prototype to simulate the performance and fuel efficiency of a new car engine under different conditions, such as speed, temperature, pressure, etc. By using a prototype, the manufacturer can save time and money by avoiding physical testing and prototyping, as well as improve the quality and reliability of the final product.

However, creating a prototype can be complex and costly, especially for large-scale or complex products or systems. A prototype requires a high level of accuracy and detail in the digital model, as well as a large amount of data and computational resources to run the simulation. A prototype also needs to be updated and validated frequently to reflect the changes and feedback in the design process.

Instance

An instance is a digital replica of a specific physical object or system that is used for monitoring and controlling its operations in real time. An instance can help you track the health and performance of your physical counterpart, as well as detect and prevent failures, anomalies, or inefficiencies. An instance can also help you optimize your operations by enabling remote control, automation, or optimization.

For example, a wind farm operator can use an instance to monitor and control each wind turbine in the farm. By using an instance, the operator can collect real-time data from various sensors on the wind turbine, such as speed, power output, temperature, vibration, etc. The operator can also use the data to analyse the condition and performance of the wind turbine, as well as to predict and prevent failures or malfunctions.

However, ensuring data security and privacy can be difficult and risky when using an instance. An instance requires a constant and reliable connection between the physical and digital counterparts, as well as a secure and encrypted data transmission and storage. An instance also exposes the physical counterpart to potential cyberattacks or unauthorized access that can compromise its functionality or integrity.

Aggregate

An aggregate is a digital representation of a group or network of physical objects or systems that is used for analysing and optimizing their interactions and performance. An aggregate can help you understand how your physical counterparts work together as a whole, as well as how they are affected by external factors, such as environment, demand, regulations, etc. An aggregate can also help you improve your outcomes by enabling coordination, collaboration, or innovation.

For example, a city planner can use an aggregate to simulate the dynamics of a smart city. By using an aggregate, the planner can collect data from various sources in the city, such as traffic cameras, smart meters, weather stations, etc. The planner can also use the data to model the interactions and behaviours of different components in the city, such as transportation, energy consumption, waste management, public safety, etc.

However, managing the large amount of data generated by an aggregate can be challenging. An aggregate requires a scalable and flexible data infrastructure that can handle the volume, variety, velocity, and veracity of the data. An aggregate also needs to ensure the quality and consistency of the data across various sources and formats.

 

Developing Digital Twins

Creating a digital twin is not a simple task. It involves four main steps: data collection, data integration, data analysis, and data visualization. Each step plays a crucial role in ensuring the accuracy, reliability, and usability of the digital twin. Let us see what each step entails and what tools and technologies can be used for each step.

Data Collection

Data collection is the process of gathering historical data and real-time data from various sources, such as IoT sensors, databases, documents, etc. Data collection is essential for creating a digital twin, as it provides the raw material for building and updating the digital model. Data collection can also help you understand the current state and condition of your physical counterpart, as well as its past performance and behaviour.

For example, if you want to create a digital twin of a building, you need to collect data from diverse sources, such as architectural plans, construction records, occupancy rates, energy consumption, temperature, humidity, etc. By collecting data from these sources, you can create a comprehensive and detailed digital model of the building that reflects its physical characteristics and dynamics.

However, data collection can also pose some challenges, such as data availability, quality, and compatibility. Data collection requires access to various data sources that may not be readily available or accessible. Data collection also requires ensuring that the data is accurate, complete, consistent, and relevant for the purpose of creating a digital twin. Data collection also requires dealing with different data formats and standards that may not be compatible or interoperable.

Data Integration

Data integration is the process of combining and transforming the collected data into a unified and consistent format that can be used for simulation and analysis. Data integration is important for creating a digital twin, as it enables the integration of diverse types of data from various sources into a single data model. Data integration can also help you enrich and enhance your data by adding additional information or attributes that may not be available in the original data sources.

For example, if you want to create a digital twin of a building, you need to integrate the data from various sources into a common data model that can represent the structure, function, and behaviour of the building. By integrating the data from these sources, you can create a coherent and comprehensive digital model of the building that can simulate its physical properties and dynamics.

However, data integration can also pose some challenges, such as data complexity, scalability, and security. Data integration requires handling large volumes of complex and heterogeneous data that may have different schemas, semantics, and quality levels. Data integration also requires scaling up the data infrastructure to accommodate the increasing amount and variety of data. Data integration also requires ensuring the security and privacy of the data by applying encryption, authentication, or authorization mechanisms.

Data Analysis

Data analysis is the process of applying machine learning, artificial intelligence, or other methods to extract insights and generate predictions from the integrated data. Data analysis is essential for creating a digital twin, as it enables the generation of valuable information and knowledge from the raw data. Data analysis can also help you optimize and improve your physical counterpart by providing recommendations, feedback, or guidance based on the analysis results.

For example, if you want to create a digital twin of a thermal process in an industrial setting, you will analyse the integrated data using various analytical techniques, such as regression, classification, clustering, and anomaly detection. By leveraging these methods, you can generate invaluable insights into the process’s efficiency, stability, and performance metrics, among other key variables.

However, data analysis can also pose some challenges, such as data validity, reliability, and explainability. Data analysis requires ensuring that the data is valid, meaningful, and representative for the purpose of creating a digital twin. Data analysis also requires ensuring that the analysis results are reliable, accurate, and consistent with the real-world phenomena. Data analysis also requires ensuring that the analysis results are explainable, understandable, and actionable for the users or stakeholders of the digital twin.

Data Visualization

Data visualization is the process of presenting the results of the analysis in an interactive and intuitive way, such as using augmented reality, dashboards, graphs, etc. Data visualization is important for creating a digital twin, as it enables the communication and interaction between the users or stakeholders and the digital model. Data visualization can also help you enhance your experience and engagement with your physical counterpart by providing immersive and realistic views of its state and condition.

For example, if you want to create a digital twin of a building, you need to visualize the results of the analysis using various tools and technologies, such as Microsoft HoloLens, Unity, Tableau, Power BI, etc. By visualizing the results of the analysis using these tools and technologies, you can provide immersive and realistic views of the building’s structure, function, and behaviour.

However, data visualization can also pose some challenges, such as data complexity, usability, and accessibility. Data visualization requires handling large volumes of complex and multidimensional data that may be difficult to comprehend or interpret. Data visualization also requires ensuring that the visualization tools and technologies are user-friendly, easy to use, and compatible with the devices and platforms of the users or stakeholders. Data visualization also requires ensuring that the visualization tools and technologies are accessible, affordable, and available for the users or stakeholders.

 

Applications of Digital Twins

Digital twins are not only useful for creating and simulating digital models, but also for applying and implementing them in various domains and purposes. Digital twins can be used for design and engineering, operations and maintenance, product lifecycle management, customer service and support, and more. In this section, we will explore how digital twins can be used for each purpose, as well as the benefits and challenges of using them.

Achieving net-zero

Digital twins can help reduce the carbon footprint of industrial processes by enabling better design, optimization, and control of the production and consumption of energy and materials. By using digital twins, you can model and simulate the energy and material flows and balances of your industrial processes, as well as the associated emissions and impacts. You can also use digital twins to compare different scenarios and alternatives, such as using different energy sources, technologies, or strategies, and evaluate their environmental and economic benefits and trade-offs.

For example, Shell uses digital twins to improve the energy efficiency and carbon intensity of its oil and gas operations. By using digital twins, Shell can monitor and optimize the performance of its assets, such as wells, pipelines, refineries, etc., as well as the energy consumption and emissions of its processes. Shell can also use digital twins to test and implement innovative technologies or solutions, such as carbon capture and storage, hydrogen production, or renewable energy integration.

Design and Engineering

Digital twins can help improve the quality and efficiency of product or system development by enabling faster prototyping, testing, and validation. By using digital twins, you can explore unique design options, evaluate their feasibility, and impact, and optimize your design based on various criteria, such as performance, cost, quality, safety, etc. You can also validate your design assumptions, identify potential issues, and reduce risks and uncertainties.

For example, NASA uses digital twins to design and test its spacecrafts and missions before launching into space. By using digital twins, NASA can simulate the behaviour and performance of its spacecraft under different conditions and scenarios, such as gravity, temperature, pressure, etc. NASA can also use digital twins to verify the functionality and reliability of its spacecraft’s components and systems, such as engines, sensors, communication devices, etc…

However, creating accurate and reliable digital models for design and engineering can be complex and costly, especially for large-scale or complex products or systems. Creating digital models requires a high level of accuracy and detail in the geometry, physics, and dynamics of the product or system. Creating digital models also requires a large amount of data and computational resources to run the simulation. Creating digital models also needs to be updated and validated frequently to reflect the changes and feedback in the design process.

Operations and Maintenance

Digital twins can help optimize the performance and reliability of physical assets by enabling real-time monitoring, control, and optimization. By using digital twins, you can track the health and performance of your physical assets, as well as detect and prevent failures, anomalies, or inefficiencies. You can also optimize your operations by enabling remote control, automation, or optimization.

For example, Siemens uses digital twins to monitor and optimize its gas turbines in power plants. By using digital twins, Siemens can collect real-time data from various sensors on the gas turbines, such as temperature, pressure, vibration, etc. Siemens can also use the data to analyse the condition and performance of the gas turbines, as well as to predict and prevent failures or malfunctions.

However, ensuring data security and privacy can be difficult and risky when using digital twins for operations and maintenance. Using digital twins requires a constant and reliable connection between the physical and digital counterparts, as well as a secure and encrypted data transmission and storage. Using digital twins also exposes the physical assets to potential cyberattacks or unauthorized access that can compromise their functionality or integrity.

Product Lifecycle Management

Digital twins can help extend the lifespan and value of products or systems by enabling continuous improvement and innovation. By using digital twins, you can update your products or systems based on user feedback and behaviour, as well as market trends and opportunities. You can also innovate your products or systems by adding new features, functions, or capabilities.

For example, Samsung uses digital twins to manage its smartphone’s product lifecycle. By using digital twins, Samsung can update its smartphone’s software and features based on user feedback and behaviour, such as usage patterns, preferences, satisfaction levels, etc. Samsung can also innovate its smartphone’s hardware and design based on market trends and opportunities, such as innovative technologies, materials, or styles.

However, managing the large amount of data generated throughout the product lifecycle can be challenging. Using digital twins requires a scalable and flexible data infrastructure that can handle the volume, variety, velocity, and veracity of the data. Using digital twins also needs to ensure the quality and consistency of the data across various sources and formats.

Customer Service and Support

Digital twins can help enhance the customer experience and satisfaction by enabling personalized recommendations, feedback, or assistance. By using digital twins, you can provide your customers with customized solutions, products, or services that meet their needs and expectations. You can also provide your customers with timely support, advice, or guidance that solve their problems or improve their outcomes.

For example, Fitbit uses digital twins to provide its customers with personalized health and fitness advice and support. By using digital twins, Fitbit can collect data from its customers’ smartwatches, such as heart rate, steps, calories burned, sleep quality, etc. Fitbit can also use the data to provide its customers with customized goals, plans, or tips that help them achieve their health and fitness objectives.

However, maintaining the alignment and synchronization between the physical and digital counterparts can be demanding. Using digital twins requires ensuring that the data and models are updated and accurate to reflect the current state and condition of the physical assets. Using digital twins also requires ensuring that the communication and interaction between the users and the digital models are smooth and seamless.

 

Conclusion

In this article, we have learned what a digital twin is, how it is created, and how it is used. We have seen that a digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical object, system, or process that runs simulations based on real-world data. We have also seen that a digital twin can help improve the performance, quality, and innovation of physical objects, systems, and processes.

Digital twin technology is not only a powerful tool for creating and simulating digital models, but also for applying and implementing them in various domains and purposes. Digital twins can be used for design and engineering, operations and maintenance, product lifecycle management, customer service and support, and more. Digital twins can also enable new possibilities and opportunities for various industries, such as manufacturing, healthcare, energy, and smart cities.

We hope that this article has given you a comprehensive and informative overview of digital twin technology and its applications. If you are interested in learning more about digital twins or want to share your thoughts, questions, or experiences with them, please feel free to contact us or leave a comment below. Thank you for reading!

Francois Pierrel
Francois Pierrel
Hi, my name is François and I am passionate about solving process engineering problems. Over the years, I have developed a number of process equipment and control systems which have had a significant impact on reducing energy usage, waste and impact on the environment. My business ethos is to always get to the root cause of problems and data analysis and modelling are always at the forefront of any project we undertake.

Sign up for our Newsletter

We can help you get your business up and running the way it should be!

If you’re interested in learning more about our industrial engineering services and products, or if you need help with a specific project, please contact us.