Digital Twin Tech: Modern Tool for Making Safe Products and Services

Experts explain how digital twin technology works and why it can increase safety or protect against future disasters.

By Jean Thilmany

By Jean Thilmany June 28, 2022

Decisions are tough. Like a game of Jenga, one wrong choice can send the entire tower tumbling down. Digital twinning makes decisions a little easier, with models that predict the future and decrease risk.

Digital twin technology provides urban planners with the tools to plan smart cities, automotive engineers with digital cars for safer wrecks, and doctors with the insights to save lives.

But what is digital twin technology, exactly, and how does digital-twin work benefit consumers? The answers won’t just make businesses who adopt digital twins more successful. They might also make society safer.

What is Digital Twin Technology?

A digital twin is an exact, three-dimensional digital replica of a place or thing. Often, it ingests data from real-world sensors, allowing it to be continually updated with real-time operating information via the cloud.

In that way, digital twins give companies and scientists the means to analyze and experiment with real objects in hypothetical environments, seeing how potential scenarios might play out without risking resources – or in some cases, lives – in order to actually test them.

As with so many other technologies,, the COVID-19 pandemic created new, urgent needs that acted like an accelerant on a fire, increasing both the speed and scale of adoption. So much so that in the span of just a year, digital twins have become an essential tool in a multitude of industries.

Indeed, digital twins can help optimize everything from airplanes and automobiles to skyscrapers and training programs, whether they already exist in physical form or are still in the planning stages.

Enabling technologies like cloud computing, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, whose increased power and sophistication have made digital twins more attractive and more feasible over the course of the last decade. For example in supply chain logistics, automatic visual recognition is used to identify objects and assets in a video feed, then that real-time data is analyzed and compared to its digital twin optimizIng use cases and strengthening the pipeline

Because they’re so versatile and can perform so many functions, digital twins are expected to have an unprecedented impact across a range of industries, including construction, urban planning, aerospace, manufacturing and healthcare, just to name a few. In factories, for example, digital twins of machinery can help manufacturers test and optimize their production processes. In aerospace and infrastructure, they can help engineers refine and test their designs without putting people or money at risk. And in urban planning, they can help cities devise affordable, effective solutions to complex problems like traffic flow, waste and pollution.

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As The Forecast reported in May 2020, yet another example is the railroad industry. In Italy, for instance, digital twins help railroad operators streamline processes, improve predictive maintenance and monitor the health of their infrastructure, Maurizio Lombardi, chief operating officer of the Transportation and Logistics Business Unit at Italian IT consultancy AlmavivA, told The Forecast.

On the strength of these and countless other potential use cases, digital twinning is expected to explode in the next decade. In fact, a 2020 report by Research and Markets forecasts that the market for digital twins will grow from $3.8 billion in 2019 to $35.8 billion by 2023. That’s a nine-fold increase.

Digital Twin Models, Real-World Impact

While engineers have been designing products using specialized software for decades, only recently has graphics technology been able to aptly mirror real life, according to Michael Grieves, now chief scientist for advanced manufacturing at the Florida Institute of Technology, who conceived the idea of the digital twin in 2002 while engaged in product lifecycle management (PLM) research at the University of Michigan. That, plus the ability to store and transmit data via the cloud, has created a moment that’s ripe for digital twin adoption.

“Right now, my perception is we’re in the conceptual stage of digital twins,” Grieves told the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in a recent interview

“We have this information that we can bring together to create this virtual version of real-world environments based on models and behavioral aspects and modeling and simulation. The next step is to have all this information be pulled together automatically and intelligently, and we’re starting to see that occur as the software capabilities begin to arise.”

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The convergence of digital twinning with automation and artificial intelligence will yield benefits in a vast spectrum of industries, many of which already are creating and using digital twins. 

Digital Twins for Manufacturing Safe Factories 

Here, digital twins mirror everything from factories’ assembly lines to their loading docks. By analyzing factory performance in a digital environment, manufacturers can uncover problems and ideate potential solutions for the masses. If production is too slow, for example, a manufacturer might use a digital twin of the production line to locate potential bottlenecks and model proposed changes to the line in order to determine how those changes would affect production. 

If the manufacturer wants to eliminate waste, it can model changes to the production line in a similar fashion to see whether they will produce the desired results. Running “what if” scenarios like that allows manufacturers to test solutions to see if they’ll work before they invest resources into actually building them.

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Digital twins also can be useful in maintenance scenarios. If a machine part breaks during production, for instance, manufacturers can duplicate the incident in a digital twin to get a better picture of its impact on the real-life production line. In doing so, they can find the source of the breakage sooner and develop workarounds if the part can’t be immediately replaced.

Engineering Digital Twins

Engineers can use digital twins to build digital simulations of systems they’ve designed. An automotive engineer, for example, can run a simulation of a vehicle crashing into a wall to determine how the car would react, then make design modifications to improve its safety performance – all without spending money to build and wreck a car. An aerospace engineer can do the same thing with a rocket to test its performance without endangering astronauts who might otherwise need to be on board.

Digital Twins Fuel Oil and Gas Industry 

Oil and gas companies use digital twins in the same way manufacturers do: for system design and monitoring and for predictive maintenance. In the latter, internet-connected sensors continually monitor assets – an oil rig, for example – and report readings back to their digital twin, which flags underperforming parts that need to be replaced or otherwise maintained. In this way, engineers can remotely monitor the performance of faraway equipment without putting inspectors on the ground, which can be expensive and dangerous.

Digital Twins in Urban Planning 

Digital twins and smart cities make good bedfellows. Using digital twins of cities and infrastructure to visualize data and run simulations, urban planners and civil engineers can solve problems like traffic congestion and air pollution. They can envision the impact a new building would have on its surroundings, for example, and isolate areas of opportunity for reducing waste or saving energy. Singapore’s Virtual Singapore initiative, for example, uses digital twins to determine the best locations for solar cells, cell phone towers and stop lights.

Digital twin use in urban planning could lead to $280 billion in cost savings by 2030. lead nearly, according to a study by Abi Research

Digital Twin in Healthcare 

Doctors might one day be able to create digital twins of patients using their medical information. Alongside artificial intelligence, such twins could help them diagnose diseases, prescribe medication and monitor wellness by learning patients’ normal biological rhythms and flagging deviations that might require intervention.

Digital Twins and Climate Change

Huge amounts of data have been collected across industries. This data has slowly been integrated into large digital environments where simulation can be adopted. By creating a digital twin, industries can holistically understand that data — aiding resiliency and mapping potential use cases. As the world combats our ongoing climate crisis, the adoption of digital twins in environmentally-focused industries like the water sector have increased, 

according to Engineering.com. The sector has used digital twins to analyze drinking water sanitation, distribution, and sewerage systems. The uncertainty of the world's climate means engineers need to understand our current data while planning for a rapidly changing future.

A Better, Safer World

Digital twins’ benefits aren’t lost on business leaders. In recent studies, researchers found that 93 percent of organizations implementing IoT already will implement digital twin technology by 2027. 

That number will only grow as digital twins themselves improve, which they will continue to do as technology advances, Grieves said during a keynote speech at ASME’s 2020 Digital Twin Summit. Consider digital twins’ accuracy, for example. Today, digital twins utilizing artificial intelligence perform with an accuracy of about 75%, according to Grieves, who says that number eventually will grow to 98% as technology gets better.

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That kind of accuracy will create even greater opportunities for digital twins, which will suddenly become as useful in emergencies as they are in the course of normal operations.

“With the [2009] Air France Flight 477 crash, the pilots continued performing the same [incorrect] action over and over. With a digital twin to show what would happen 30 minutes later in flight, they might have been able to correct their course,” Grieves said in a 2020 interview with Insight magazine, a publication of Oakland University’s School of Business Administration.

“Another area where predictors could have life-saving consequences is surgery.”

Or consider the next big pandemic: With digital twins of cities, hospitals and patients – and even the virus itself, or potential vaccines with which to fight it – the next time a lethal illness threatens humanity, it might be possible to model its transmission, predict its spread and engineer public health interventions that stop it in its tracks.

Similar models could be useful in the aftermath of a natural disaster or in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. In that way, digital twins can touch individuals on a very personal level by enabling a better and safer world.

“[Digital twinning] is dominating our capabilities,” Grieves told industrial software company Cognite in a 2020 interview. “As long as we have increasing computing capabilities, which we are having, I think the future is … bright.”

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of the original article published on April 6, 2021.

Jacob Gedetsis is the contributing writer, who revised the original article. His work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Post Standard and The Plain Dealer, among others. Find him on Twitter @JacobGedetsis.

Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer living in St. Paul who writes about engineering and technology.

© 2022 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved. For additional legal information, please go here.

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