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The Future of Digital Twins

Digital Twins: The Intersection of Physical and Digital Goods Powered by IoT

A digital twin is simply defined the digital replica of a physical good or system, and digital twins have in fact been used for many years to help enterprises manage remote and often expensive equipment. The concept of a digital twin was pioneered by NASA as the organization famously used one to help rescue members of the Apollo 13 mission after it experience mechanical issues. NASA continues to heavily use digital twins for its space exploration initiatives including for its rovers on Mars.

Digital twins are now seeing significantly expanded use in industry as there are now many powerful IT which can be integrated into a digital twin including connected sensors, big data analytics and increasingly AI. As such digital twin solutions are becoming both more robust and more cost effective. Digital twins were until very recently limited to the aerospace and heavy machinery market, but this is changing and there are now a variety of use cases in diverse sectors such as smart cities, healthcare, insurance and utilities.

Use of Digital Twins in Aerospace – Boeing

The classic use case until very recently for digital twins has been the manufacturing and operation of large and expensive machinery such as airplanes and large turbines. As such some of the most advanced use cases of digital twins come from this sector. At Boeing digital twins are used to design aircraft, as a digital twin is created for a new plane, after which simulations are run that predict the performance of various airline components over the lifecycle of the product. As a result, Boeing engineers can predict when products are expected to fail. According to the company they have achieved a 40% improvement rate in the first-time quality of parts by using a digital twin. The company plans to digitize all of its engineering and development systems in the future and also plans to share this information with its supply chain. Another use case being explored for Boeing aircraft is using a digital twin to achieve a perfect cargo load balance. For example, a Boeing 737-800 has a maximum cargo load of 80,000 kilograms but many planes fly with less cargo than this as weight figures are calculated manually. By using IoT sensors on a digital twin, a precise and yet safe cargo load can be determined increasing cargo revenue per flight.

Use of Digital Twins in Consumer Goods Manufacturing – Unilever

Digital twins are no longer just being used by heavy machinery manufacturers, as today even makers of fast-moving consumer goods are using digital twins to enhance their operational efficiency. For example, Unilever now has eight manufacturing facilities worldwide which have deployed digital twins. In these factories data from IoT systems is fed into digital models of each factory. This data is then processed by algorithms which can then be used to improve the overall manufacturing process. These trained algorithms are then plugged back into the physical factory in order to automate the manufacturing process. Unilever has seen significant success from deploying digital twins to greatly increase the consistency in production of soaps and detergents. By using AI, the company has also been able to reduce the number of false alerts which require action in their plants. Previously the company received 3,000 such alerts per day but has been able to reduce this number by 90%.

Use of Digital Twins in Smart Cities – Land Use Victoria

Digital twins are also being deployed outside of the manufacturing sector entirely and will play a large role in the optimization of resources in the smart city. As an example, Land Use Victoria recently announced its plans to create a digital twin of an area of land for the Fishermens Bend renewal project near Melbourne, Australia. In this project a digital twin will be created for the city environment and metrics such as traffic flow, electricity consumption and water consumption can be analyzed in real time using sensor data. By using a digital twin, the local government believes that it will be able to better plan and develop this area into a smart community.

Use of Digital Twins in Healthcare – Linköping University, Sweden

The healthcare industry is also expected to embrace digital twins in the coming years in order to provide precision medicine to individual people. As it stands today, medication can be ineffective in 40% to 70% of patients causing considerable problems when treating diseases. Linköping University in Sweden created digital twins of mice with rheumatoid arthritis by sequencing their RNA into digital models. Computer simulations were then done to determine which drugs would be most effective at treating individual mice. Going forward this technology could replace the need for dangerous and expensive clinical trials on living people.

What Does the Future Hold for Digital Twins?

Going forward digital twins will emerge as one of the key IT tools in many industries, especially in manufacturing but will also revolutionize product development and product testing in a wide variety of areas. Therefore, in the future almost every manufactured product could have its own digital twin as long as it is somehow generating data which can be captured and analyzed. This concept is known as a `digital triplet` and will represent the next stage of evolution of the digital twin. For example, instead of Boeing having just one digital twin of a new aircraft for development purposes, the company will have a unique digital model for every aircraft it makes. These individual models can be fed information from connected sensors in real time, and AI analysis can be applied to make real time predictions about the product life cycle, predictive maintenance etc. Going forward human beings will also have their own digital triplets, which will collect real-time information from wearables and can contain a user`s unique genetic code and using this information in theory every person on the planet could receive extremely individualized yet cost effective medical treatment.

Selected Sources:

(February 28, 2020)

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