A digital twin stands for a virtual copy of a physical asset, a digital copy of a product or a machine. The purpose of people deploying them is to be able to configure digitally the asset’s qualities.
For a product, this might include properties such as shape, color, design and other physical attributes, while for a manufacturing machine it might include its virtual representation along with the configuration properties, such as rotation speed and tension load levels.
So far nothing new here, nothing very sophisticated and complicated compared to what industry has been using. So, what’s the big deal with digital twins? Why do they keep popping up alongside fancy terms such as the Internet of Things, smart manufacturing, augmented and virtual reality and so on?
Digital Twins, with the use of IoT technologies will soon -- if they haven't already -- make the concepts of smart products and smart services a reality.
Digital twins: The background
A digital twin, as a digital deployment, simulates an asset’s physical behavior. Digital twins are used extensively in the industrial design world as a way of optimally adjusting the qualities of a product before it is manufactured. They are also used to adjust and optimize the behavior of an asset in the field, through simulations that are made with the use of software tools.
Imagine you want to design a car component, but you don't know how well it will perform in real life situations like extreme weather conditions. You -- or the industrial designer -- can design the component with the use of special 3-D design software. This software allows you to create a digital drawing of the component you want to manufacture and simulate real life situations, like those extreme weather conditions. By applying tension load to your digital component design, or digital twin, in specific directions you can mimic real world stresses on the product, like the force of the wind. You can test its attributes, such as reaction, resistance, and failure thresholds. After testing, you could go back to your digital drawing, the digital twin, and adjust its shape and qualities before committing to manufacturing it.
Using this process gives you the ability to mitigate the chances of product failures before going into production.
Digital twins until today: Their rationale
So far, function of digital twins has been primarily focused in the following areas:
- To tighten the loop between design and finished good, BOM (Bill of Materials) and BOP (Bill of Processes) that describe the raw material and the processes to manufacture the good,
- Digital twins concerned solely with the R&D/design/manufacturing processes.
Their enabling technologies are the various Computer Aided Design, Engineering and Manufacturing packages (CAD/CAE/CAM), along with their connection with the manufacturing equipment, machines and devices in the field, and dashboards and control panels.
However, until now, the very concept of the digital twin has not enabled the tracking of the asset throughout its entire lifecycle, as there was limited relation of the production planning, the warehouse management and the shipping processes of the products. Furthermore, the visibility of the top-level operations within the manufacturing premises was limited as well.
Digital twins are gaining traction and interest today because various new tech developments can really push the benefits of the concept beyond traditional manufacturing and product management. Starting from industrial and product design, quality management and product lifecycle management, and extending to the areas of ergonomics, manufacturing and marketing, new tech is enabling novel fields and capabilities for digital twins, such as decentralized manufacturing, mass-customization of products, and Interactive industrial design.
The IoT, as the enabler of the communication for assets/products, can empower the existing functionality of digital twins in a way that:
- Bridges the gap between design and product usage, because the current stage of manufacturing and the processes are captured by sensors that reside in the materials and the machines
- Real-time reporting on the product is feasible throughout its lifecycle
The IoT augments the manufacturing process with sensors and automated generation of data about operations, performance, and maintenance. A digital twin can then incorporate this product data from design to operation and beyond, including maintenance history. It can then provide insights and services throughout the after-sale stage, when the product will be in the hands of customers.
- Increased product customization through the participation of consumers or external designers/engineers in the product creation process.
- Higher quality through better assessment of materials and their behavior, as reported by consumers and from the field level.
- Real-time optimized warehouse management and logistics.
- Continuous visibility after-shipment and after-sale of the product.
- Convergence of business strategy, marketing operations and customer services, through continuously updated product information.
- Enablement of the “as-a-service” offering for assets and products through continuous communication between the manufacturer and its product.
Transferring the physical world to the digital realms
As industrial manufacturers move to new business models that help them achieve higher profitability and discover new revenue streams, the concept of the selling “as-a-service” and “pay-per-use” or “pay-per-outcome” are emerging.
As important as it is to have an IoT platform strategy in place, a digital twins strategy for IoT-enhanced products and services is proving to be equally important. The concept of the digital twin is already proving to be valuable for product management and is expected to complement -- or even replace -- the very concept of the product offering itself.
Yet another reason for the digital twin enthusiasm is the underlying notion that the world is being radically digitized in all possible forms. So, digital twins, even though they are currently applied within the boundaries of the industrial manufacturing space, represent in a great way the capabilities of transferring the physical world to the digital realm. In reality, the concept of the digital twin, as envisaged in the context of the 4th Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), promises to enable full interaction between consumers and the products that they use, and that of manufacturers with the products they create, and merge these worlds even more.
Christina Patsioura is an IoT Research Analyst at Beecham Research, with a particular focus on the Enterprise Internet of Things, Industrial IoT, Smart Grid, Data Analytics and Machine Learning. She has co-created "IoT Pilot", a web-based IoT Platform selection tool and has co-authored an extensive report on Industrial Data Analytics. Her work in analyzing the IoT market landscape, across all enterprise sectors and verticals, includes consultancy projects with technology suppliers and with financial organisations and private equity firms that are looking to make investments in these areas. Christina holds a MEng in Mechanical/Industrial Engineering and completed a thesis on the topic of Investment Analysis for the Telecommunications sector. Twitter: @christpatsi