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Twins have no trouble understanding one another. A single glance, a gesture or a single word is generally sufficient. Pain, feelings and thoughts are immediately shared in real time. It is no accident that a twin is a single entity. We see the same in the world of technology, in which the physical and virtual are seamlessly linked to one another with the ‘digital twin’.
The digital twin concept is defined differently by different companies and sectors. This diverse range of names and characterizations increases the risk of linguistic confusion. For the sake of clarity, I will distinguish three approaches; these actually represent consecutive maturity levels. Step-by-step to increasingly smarter products, processes and ecosystems.
1. Design and test phase
The initial form of the digital twin involves a design and test phase before a physical product is even created. Once created, components can be equipped with sensors, which provide information about the developed product. As a third step, the digital and physical versions mirror one another entirely and the entire entity is completely linked to external sources and users of information. Algorithms help with preventive maintenance, tracking & tracing, autonomous control, life cycle and asset management.
This mature form of digital twin involves a large Dutch harbor, with which IBM collaborates extensively. This is based on a totally digitized environment and infrastructure: a virtual copy of the complete set of physical processes and assets, including information streams from sensors and users to the digital representation. The goal is to ultimately achieve an autonomous port, in part in anticipation of the continuing advancement of ships that will eventually operate and steer themselves.
2. Design phase
During the design phase, it makes no difference whether the project involves cars, building tunnels or some other type of infrastructure object. With the total life cycle in mind, products are developed from a specific objective, including every factor that can affect this objective. Increasingly, tests can be based on simulations, which can include all external factors. Thus, you also see how the vehicle to be designed functions in the various environments and usage scenarios. This is much quicker, cheaper and more effective than physical tests.
Once the vehicle or tunnel has been created, it can be equipped with sensors, as previously described, revealing dimensions that were previously unknown. First of all, the product provides information about itself. This results in shorter improvement cycles for machines, assets and infrastructures. Then other features can be added such as augmented reality or natural language processing, which makes voice control possible.
3. Process improvement
A large beer brewer has optimized its product line based on the digital twin concept. Brewing beer, filling bottles, and then labeling and packing these bottles is a chronological process. A malfunction in any one of these production steps has enormous consequences. A business case can be created quite simply, because conducting maintenance or making repairs in a timely manner offers enormous operational and financial added value over and above operating based on a traditional service level agreement (SLA).
The same applies for a large airport, a manufacturer of passenger elevators, the previously mentioned harbor enterprise and a company that designs and builds smart buildings. I wrote about the latter in my blog that dealt with ‘uberizing’ real estate, where deploying intelligent solutions for enterprise asset management (EAM) makes it possible to create offices that are both increasingly smarter and easy to modify based on need.
Linking objects and systems (which may or may not extend across organizational boundaries) creates ‘digital threads’, for example in the framework of the ‘traceability‘ of physical goods, smart utilization of areas and locations, as well as the malfunctions mentioned above.
The real-time processing of data from diverse sources is our focus. For IBM, a digital twin brings various technologies together: solutions for EAM, IoT, cognitive computing and, of course, the cloud. Take the link with IBM’s Weather Company, by which information regarding the weather is combined with asset management data and data from sensors. Applying understanding, learning, reasoning and predicting to this real-time data, brings smarter products, processes and ecosystems within reach. This is, in fact, just like a twin. Twins are also linked in diverse ways to both the outside world and to one another. Thanks to their special bond, emotions, experiences, incentives and thoughts can be shared and processed. Because of this, the presence and intelligence of one twin counts for both of them.
Want to know more about IBM’s vision of the digital twin? Click here.