The rise of digital twins in the Industrial Internet of Things

When you start hooking up Internet of Things endpoints, devices and physical assets to data sensing and gathering systems which are turned into insights and ultimately into optimized/automated processes and business outcomes, as we do with the Industrial Internet of Things (among other things), there are quite some new possibilities that arise, to say the least.

A digital twin is a living model that drives a business outcome (Colin J. Parris, GE)

Even if we’re only really still seeing the tip of the possibility iceberg, sometimes it requires a bit of imagination to understand these opportunities. Digital twins are a perfect example of this and key in the Industry 4.0 vision and the Industrial Internet.

We all have grown used to the concept and practice of digitization: books turned into e-books, paper information turned into electronic formats and digital processes, music in bits and bytes, the list goes on. We start to understand the opposite as well, for instance with 3D-printing. Digital twins are again something different. They are digital (software) copies of a physical asset. That’s the really simple definition. Let’s take a deeper look.

The rise of the digital twin in the Internet of Things

The digital twin: twice the fun, more than double the possibilities

For starters, let’s go back to our example of digitizing paper information, also known as document capture and scanning.

Once the full document or, more importantly the information we need from the paper document is scanned and archived or used to drive whatever business process, we can do two things with the original paper: get rid of it or keep it, for instance for regulatory reasons.

Digital twins are a dynamic software model of a physical thing or system (Gartner)

If we trash it, the paper-free dream, it’s gone and all we have is that digital information. No copy. With a digital twin, as the name indicates, we have two versions of a ‘thing’: the physical one and the digital twin one. In this case with a thing we don’t mean a paper document or a batch of paper to digitize but, you guessed it, the physical assets as we know them from the Internet of Things and, today, mainly the cyber-physical systems of the Industrial Internet and Industry 4.0.

Imagine. You have an airplane engine with sensors and loads of sophisticated parts and technology as in the case of Rolls Royce which we mentioned in our Internet of Things examples.

What if you could make a fully virtual replica (not to be confounded with AR but that’s coming) in the cloud that is designed by engineers (indeed, CAD plays a role here) and “functions” as the real engine would do but then in a virtual form (simulation)?

If the virtual replica is really a digital twin and thus acts like the real thing, that would help us in detecting possible issues, test new settings, simulate all kinds of scenarios, analyze whatever needs to be analyzed, in fact, do pretty much everything we want in a virtual or digital environment, knowing that what we do with that digital twin also would happen when doing it with the ‘real’ physical asset. And that’s where we talk innovation and product design in entirely new ways too.

The Internet of Things feeds digital twins – who are hungry for real data

OK but how can we be sure that this would be the case? That’s where sensors and the Internet of Things, or better data, come in. The engine in our example or any other physical asset helps us in making our digital twin as it feeds data we need to make that digital twin a real twin.

Digital twins offer numerous benefits on which we’ll elaborate later. In fact, you might already have seen the concept in action. If you didn’t, the video below, using a bike equipped with sensors, gives you a good idea.

However, in real life you’ll notice that digital twins today are predominantly used in the Industrial Internet or Industrial Internet of Things and certainly engineering and manufacturing. If you remember our airplane engine or other complex and technology-intensive physical assets such as IoT-enabled industrial robots and far more, you can imagine why. You can even create a digital twin of a an environment with a set of physical assets, as long as you get those data.

That’s also why, when we speak about investments in and solutions for digital twins, we will typically encounter the names of companies that are very active in the Industrial Internet. GE, for instance. PTC, Siemens, CSC, SAP, the list goes on.

Two more things you might want to know about digital twins:
  1. The concept of digital twins isn’t THAT new. Here (PDF opens) is a whitepaper by Dr. Michael Grieves in which he explains ‘his’ digital twins concept in the scope of virtual factory replication (imagine).
  2. End 2016 Gartner put digital twins on its list of top 10 technology trends for 2017, predicting that ‘within three to five years, billions of things will be represented by digital twins’.

Gartner defines digital twins as “a dynamic software model of a physical thing or system” as you can read here.

Digital twins made tangible: the bike example

As promised a video, making it a bit more tangible.

At the edition 2015 of LiveWorx, the event of one the industrial IoT leaders, PTC, the company’s EVP CAD, Michael M. Campbell, explained the whole idea in easy terms, using the set-up PTC had constructed using a bike. The video speaks for itself (and also shows where AR can come in). Of course, from a technology perspective there’s a bit more to it than that but hopefully it’s clear what a digital twin is and why you’ll see more digital twin initiatives and digital twins in Industry 4.0 soon.

Digital twins “living” models, driving business outcomes

Below is another video, now from GE (after all they coined the term industrial Internet and do a lot in digital twins) where Colin J. Parris, VP of Software Research at the GE Global Research Center takes you on a digital twin journey, after a somewhat futuristic demo.

In the video Parris calls a digital twin a ‘living model that drives a business outcome’. That sounds far better than a digital, virtual copy of a physical asset indeed. And it’s of course far closer to the essence.


Top image: Shutterstock – Copyright: Zapp2Photo – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.