The ideas presented in the legendary science-fiction movies Matrix and Avatar, where people live in the digital simulation of the world and have their virtual prototypes, are likely to become reality. The new technology named digital twins is able to create virtual models of objects, processes and large systems. Scientists believe that the digital twin of a human will also appear soon.
It may sound daunting, but digital twin technology examples are already in practice in manufacturing and some other sectors. Let’s learn about this technology a bit more, since it’s going to become a part of our everyday life.
What Is Digital Twin Technology?
Originally, the digital twin definition was given by Dr. Michael Grieves in 2002. However, at that time, it was hard and expensive to implement the concept and make it available for general use. The situation changed in the 2010s, with the boosting development of IoT, artificial intelligence, Big Data and cloud computing.
So, what is digital twin technology? A digital twin is a virtual model of a real product, process or service that can monitor, analyze and improve its performance. The model is created using computer-aided engineering and is integrated with the Internet of Things, machine learning and Big Data analytics. A virtual prototype of an object is “live” and dynamic, meaning that it is updated every time its physical twin undergoes changes. It is also able to learn, absorbing the knowledge from people, machines and the environment it exists in.
Digital twins must comply with three requirements:
- Have the appearance identical to the original object, including all minor details
- Behave in the same way as the original object during tests
- Analyze information on the pros and cons of the original object, predict possible issues and suggest solutions
Types of Digital Twins
Virtual models are widely used in the manufacturing of various products. Several types of simulators are in existence today.
These are models of separate products. Manufacturers use a virtual prototype of a certain good before setting up a production line to analyze how it will perform under different conditions, and what issues may occur. This allows making necessary adjustments and creating the more efficient design of goods. As a result, product digital twins help reduce production expenses and time-to-market, while improving quality.
Afterward, product twins can be used to control product performance in the physical world.
These models simulate manufacturing processes. A virtual production process can create different scenarios and show what will happen in different situations. This allows a company to develop the most efficient production methodology.
The process can be further optimized with the help of product twins for every piece of equipment involved. Thus, an enterprise will be able to perform preventative maintenance, avoiding costly downtimes. Manufacturing operations will be safer, faster and more efficient.
These are virtual models of the entire systems (e.g of a plant or a factory). They collect massive amounts of operational data produced by devices and products in the system, gain insight and create new business opportunities to optimize all the processes.
Experts suppose that in the near future, millions of digital twins will replace human workers involved in the diagnosis of the equipment malfunctions. This is already happening in some enterprises. Virtual models are more effective, as they gather information about the condition of the spare parts from sensors in the online mode, and are ready to replace or fix them before serious damage occurs.
Futurists predict that digital copies of people will also appear soon. They will anticipate the behavior and wishes of their human prototypes, make decisions and perform other actions on their behalf.
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Functions of Digital Twins
In general, virtual models are used to monitor, analyze and improve their physical prototypes. Figuratively, their functions can be divided into three stages:
- To See — at this stage, sensors and devices collect data to picture the situation.
- To Think — at this stage, the smart software analyzes collected data and, if there are any issues, finds several possible solutions to each one.
- To Do — at this stage, intelligent algorithms choose the most appropriate solution and implement them to address the problems.
The technology allows people to see the inner problems of physical objects without getting inside due to computer visualization, and solve them with no risks for people’s health and life.
How to Create a Digital Twin Model
We’ve already mentioned that there is a cooperation of smart technologies in a digital twin: IoT, AI, ML, cloud computing. How does it work?
First, engineers build a virtual copy of a physical object (system or process) using computer modeling techniques. Then, a lot of sensors are connected to the object to collect a variety of data in the online mode. The data is uploaded to the cloud, where AI algorithms analyze it and determine possible scenarios. Thus, we get a working model that can improve the efficiency of production.
Three Benefits of Digital Twin Technology for Businesses
The technology is primarily used in manufacturing now. But the situation is quickly changing, with more businesses implementing the Internet of Things into their operational processes. So, we will see more digital twins employed in various industries quite soon. What is the digital twin technology impact in business?
1. Cost Cutting
As a rule, a product goes through multiple iterations before a working prototype appears. This process is very expensive because it requires a significant contribution of time and labor.
Digital twins make it possible to reduce defects during actual production, allowing engineers to carry out all tests and simulations in the virtual environment. It is much easier, cheaper and faster to correct defects in the digital world than in the real world. Manufactures can eliminate almost all of the risks of the future output and make sure that the physical object will perform exactly as planned.
Only when the digital working prototype appears, it can be put into production with confidence that there will be no bugs and no additional expenses will be needed. Then, the technology provides further maintenance that is also cost-effective for business, as fewer employees can be involved.
So, the main benefit of digital twins is the reduction of costs during production and maintenance.
2. Reduced Time-to-Market
Half the battle for every company is getting to market faster than its competitors. But it is often a problem because of long iterations and constant improvements.
When a company uses a virtual twin to create a product or a service, it greatly reduces the time-to-market. The lifecycle of a product is performed in the digital environment where all improvements can be done much quicker and easier. A virtual prototype validates how its physical copy will behave in reality, thus optimizing the effectiveness and time of development. So, you can hit the market as soon as the production begins.
3. Predictive Maintenance
One more important advantage of digital twin technology is that it can solve many problems well in advance. This capability is called predictive maintenance.
Virtual copies perform constant remote control of their physical prototypes gathering various state information via sensors. The analysis of the gathered data allows predicting possible breakdowns, e.g. if a spare part is nearly worn out and needs to be replaced. Human operators will get reporting about issues and address them in a timely manner. If a spare part is replaced before it is broken, the manufacturer will avoid more serious damages and unnecessary downtime, saving time and money.
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Are There Disadvantages of Digital Twin Technology?
It all sounds good, so where are the pitfalls? Like any other innovation, there are aspects of digital twin technology that can be called the flip side of the coin.
The main problem that arises with digital clones is data security and privacy. Since smart software has access to numerous resources of business and private information, it is subject to cyberattacks and data theft. Business owners who are going to make use of the technology should think long and hard about security systems.
Moreover, nobody knows how the intelligent systems will behave in the future. It is quite possible that they may grow out of control due to the ability to learn and update, and will make decisions dangerous for people.
In any case, we should take care of our safety and determine red lines for artificial intelligence.
The high cost of technology implementation can be considered as another disadvantage. On the other hand, it is a one-time investment that will pay off in the future.
Digital twin technology can already be found in action in different industries. Here are some vivid examples.
The US corporation General Electric was the first company to develop an industrial application for the concept of digital counterparts. It was used to analyze and improve the efficiency of wind turbines and aircraft engines. To date, the company has already created more than half a million virtual copies for a wide range of products, processes and systems.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) tests all the equipment first in a virtual environment. Devices are not manufactured physically until their digital counterparts satisfy all the required characteristics.
Oil and Gas Industry
Engineers at British Petroleum (BP) visualize and control thousands of pipes hidden under the snow in Alaska using their virtual replicas. Siemens monitors its huge gas turbines and runs tests through hundreds of sensors.
There 3D digital twins of the whole cities already exist, e.g. Virtual Singapore. These systems provide valuable insights that city authorities may use for informing citizens and improving infrastructure.
Digital twin technology is the next step in the development of the global economy. It allows people to monitor, analyze and optimize the performance of various systems and helps them make better decisions.
Someone feels suspicious about such future, others keep a positive stance, believing that virtual counterparts will peacefully coexist with humans.