Digital Twin Technology Takes Off

If you haven’t heard of digital twin technology, you will soon. While there is much exaggerated and hypothetical talk about a virtual reality world called the Metaverse, scientists are busy creating a three-dimensional simulation of Earth. In other words, they create the digital twin of our planet.

What is a digital twin? It is a virtual representation of real-world entities and processes that are synchronized with a specified frequency and accuracy. In other words, it’s an exact digital replica of a physical object. Engineers are using digital twins as part of the digital transformation in aerospace manufacturing and more broadly in Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution. But scientists, doctors, designers and other experts are also beginning to use digital twins to monitor and understand the physical world at a deeper level.

When defining a digital twin, it is important to realize that we can create digital twins at different levels. Digital twins can range from the smallest transistor on a computer chip to something as large and complicated as our planet’s weather pattern or a logistics company’s truck route.

Digital twins bring 3D simulation further into the lifecycle because they reflect changes in the real world. For example, suppose an architect is designing a house. You can create a 3D model of this house and even simulate how the structure will stand as weather and time erode the materials. But what if we want to know what the actual house is like after it’s built? If a severe storm blows off a few shingles, or if a child accidentally sends a baseball into a window, a digital twin would contain those changes.

In practice, engineers equip the products they build with sensors to monitor them and update the virtual versions. This allows them to monitor the product long after it leaves the factory. This helps with maintenance and informs future designs and iterations. According to IBM, digital twins are designed around a bi-directional flow of information.

Engineers also use the virtual model to run simulations, apply artificial intelligence and analyze the data obtained. These insights are then shared with the physical object in the real world, creating an intelligent system and a constant feedback loop.

Use cases for digital twins

Digital twins are particularly useful for projects involving physically large structures or mechanically complex systems. It’s no surprise that the aerospace industry, which encompasses large and complex designs, is quickly adding digital twin technology to its toolbox. Some examples of IBM, Popular Mechanics and Fast Company digital twins are:

  • Airplanes, spacecraft, automobiles, etc. in manufacturing
  • Buildings, bridges and other infrastructure in the design
  • Energy sources and power equipment
  • A digital twin of the Earth for climate researchers to run simulations to understand how to plan to approach extreme climate events and new challenges
  • Hospitals and related outpatient services twins for physicians and hospital administrators to streamline staffing and operations
  • Digital patient twins to help physicians monitor disease progression and treatment
  • Avatars of people with chronic pain that can help researchers optimize and predict the effects of medication
  • Digital twins of astronauts that NASA plans to use to prepare for space missions

Digital twins are now possible because several technologies have recently matured and become widespread, including the Internet of Things, cloud computing, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. Digital twins are already making a difference, and as their underlying technologies mature, so does their potential impact.

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