When Apollo 13 ran into trouble nearly 50 years ago, NASA scientists back on Earth were able to recreate the exact scenario the astronauts were facing and guide the craft safely home.
They were using mirrored systems – replicating the crew’s environment back on Earth in an early version of what we now know as digital twins.
The modern concept of a digital twin – a replica of a physical asset or process in digital format – has been in limited use for more than a decade, with NASA among the frontrunners. But advances in technology such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing and data analysis mean that digital twins are becoming more commonplace.
Today’s sophisticated sensor and connectivity technology, driven by the Internet of Things adoption across companies and industries, is giving new purpose to this technology.
Digital twins allow accurate simulation of scenarios and provide a more comprehensive overview of the situation in a way not previously possible. This collaborative technology is ultimately driving growth, creating new efficiencies, supporting innovation and enabling sustainable operations through the more efficient and quick development of products, services, and outcomes.
Purpose of technology: The power of digital twins
There are a number of key areas where digital twin technology is currently being used to great effect. When combined with sensors, AI and in-depth analytics, the accurate, real-time data they generate can boost efficiency, improve health and safety and support innovation in processes and products.
An accurate model allows enterprises to review and evaluate several permutations for their operations by altering some parameters to review the impact on production, supply chain, and distribution.
Similarly, businesses can find opportunities for improving efficiency and overall performance by identifying patterns and predicting performance and outcomes under certain circumstances. Detailed insight from analytics, often combined with automation, can also be used to help reduce process variability, which is particularly relevant in the manufacturing sector.
Increasingly, digital twins are being used to monitor equipment for maintenance and reduce the risks of failure. They also allow businesses the ability to evaluate products before launch, helping to iron out any issues.
The digital twins advantage
There are a few key sectors where digital twin technology has started to take off, in particular, manufacturing and heavy industries. Here, minor adjustments to processes and constant tweaking and improvements can make a big difference to the overall output and revenue.
- Improved operations and safety in the field
The offshore oil and gas industry is a prime example of the intelligent use of analytics and digital twin technology to boost efficiency and improve worker safety. Tasks such as keeping on top of maintenance would previously take a lot of time and effort, and often things would be missed. Simulating hazardous conditions or situations can allow for determining safety issues and prevent accidents. Flagging issues early means workflow becomes preventative rather than reactive. Chevron, for example, expects to save millions of dollars in maintenance costs in its oil fields and refineries by using a predictive maintenance system.
- Enhancing care outcomes with real-time monitoring
Healthcare is another sector in which digital twins are on the rise. Real-time data collection, potentially via IoT technology, means practitioners can monitor the effect of treatments as well as track the results and impact of behavior and lifestyle. This creates a more patient-centric model, improves care delivery and the overall patient experience, and can also be used to inform precision medicine.
For example, combining information gathered from patients wearing trackers to monitor blood pressure with medication use supports a more preventative approach, heading off problems at an early stage.
- Maximizing efficiency
It is not just in the industry where fine-tuning systems can have exponential benefits. In Formula 1, many minor improvements to processes add up and can shave off crucial time on race day. They also contribute to important health and safety improvements in a time-pressured environment.
F1 race cars have more than 150 sensors measuring everything from temperature and pressure to acceleration and forces. This data is collected every 0.001 seconds and transmitted back to the garage, meaning each car sends more than 1 billion readings in a two-hour race. Combined with analytics, race teams can work out the optimum set-up for cars, and the best pit-lane strategies.
Other examples of digital twins’ power to improve processes and efficiency can be seen in the agricultural industry, where Brazilian machinery manufacturer Stara has equipped models with IoT and sensor technology. The machines collect real-time data about processes like planting, harvesting and fertilizing, which is then used to inform more productive and sustainable farming practices.
- Simulating the real thing
Perhaps one of the most ambitious uses of twin technology to date is in Singapore, where big data, cloud computing, IoT and virtual reality have come together to create a digital reproduction of the city itself.
Alongside a virtual map, other real-time information such as demographics, and climate and traffic data have been incorporated into the model. The idea is that town planners can test the impact of changes before carrying out any construction work. It is also a useful way of simulating emergency situations and planning evacuation protocols.
To date, it has been used to visualize various options for a pedestrian bridge spanning a major road, and to monitor the impact of a number of green technologies in a sustainable district pilot.
Looking to the future
In the longer-term, it is likely that digital twins will start to be connected to each other, interacting in a network that could share data, improve overall performance, and lead to better decision-making on wide-reaching issues such as improved efficiency across ecosystems to sustainable operations that counter climate change.
More and more industries are seeing the potential of the technology. The UK, for example, has launched a National Digital Twin Programme to help transform the construction sector.
Gartner research shows digital twins are on the cusp of mainstream use – 75% of organizations that use IoT also use or plan to use digital twins.
Increasingly industries are seeking out their own applications for the technology, getting a rich and real-time view of their processes and assets. Combined with the rise of IoT, machine learning and augmented reality, new possibilities and purposes are being opened up. And once these technologies become mainstream, the possibilities multiply.