Does your business need a digital twin?

Developing a digital twin for your business could open a new era in connectivity, profitability and ensures your company is post-COVID ready

Creating a digital twin for your business process can deliver commercial and resource efficiencies. TechUK defines a digital twin as: “A relevant, virtual representation of the state and behaviour of something physical or non-physical with a functional output in the real-world.” 

Often related to cities, the built environment, and manufacturing today, all businesses can develop a digital twin to help them innovate, streamline their businesses and deliver better products and services to their customers.

In practice, a digital twin will contain a set of technologies including sensors for data gathering, multiple communications channels and analytical models (simulations or visualisation) that direct real-world actions from the digital twin.

As businesses look to evolve their products and services to meet post-pandemic demand, innovating at speed is critical. And as their digital transformation roadmaps have also been radically re-drawn, digital twins offer a platform to streamline operations and effectively use technologies including 5G, the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). Industry 4.0 and its use of all these technologies is often pointed to as a core example of the digital twin concept in action, as manufacturers embrace their digital futures.

In a report on the trend, Deloitte also points to how digital twins can enhance a business's decision making:

“Digital twins can profoundly enhance an enterprise’s ability to make proactive, data-driven decisions, increasing efficiency and avoiding potential issues. And they can make it possible to experiment with the future by exploring what-if scenarios safely and economically.”

Gaël Seydoux, director of research and innovation at mobile connectivity R&D company InterDigital, points to human resources and training as an ideal candidate for developing a digital twin. “One of the most promising use cases of digital twin technology is in creating virtual agents for training and HR purposes,” he says. “Mass remote working means training will become increasingly virtual and ensuring digital agents can operate and interact with employees in a personable way is imperative to ensure the quality of training doesn’t decrease.”

The practical benefit that a digital twin can deliver to a business is continuous intelligence. As data pours into a company from expanding technologies such as IoT, using this information to drive strategic planning is now a commercial imperative no enterprise can ignore.

Gartner points to several tech trends, including hyperautomation, AI engineering and the distributed cloud, as transformational technologies throughout 2021. All of these can connect with, and benefit from, the addition of a digital twin. The added insights a digital twin can bring to these and other technologies include improved cybersecurity and enhancing customer and employee experiences should not be underestimated.

Embracing your digital twin

Developing a digital twin is no quick turnaround task, though. Speaking to IT Pro, Sean Gigremosa, technical product manager, Rolls-Royce Power Systems, outlined the challenges businesses can face when embarking on developing a digital twin. "The main challenge is convincing an IT organisation that is used to thinking of things in different systems and solutions. The digital twin is really a different architectural mindset and some IT organisations do not see the value of switching to a digital twin architecture.”

Gigremosa also makes the point that having a clearly defined use case is. “The other challenge is really starting on the right use case or problem to solve with the digital twin. You have to have a starting point; you definitely don’t want to boil the ocean. Start on something small and make it a success and build on that,” he says.

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With so many burgeoning technologies, business leaders can feel overwhelmed. The expanding DARQ technologies (distributed ledger, artificial intelligence, extended reality and quantum computing) show a path many enterprises want to journey down. However, implementing these technologies and embracing IoT, industrial IoT (IIoT), and 5G makes a heady mix for any CIO or CTO.

All these technologies will impact all businesses to varying degrees. Using the digital twin concept, companies can take their first steps to using them in association with the digital twin or twins they create. It's not inconceivable that most businesses will develop several digital twins, with some existing in isolation while others are fully integrated.

The future is virtual

The use of digital twins is increasingly widespread across many sectors. Twaice creates digital twins for the automotive industry, specifically electric vehicle (EV) batteries, to help vehicle manufacturers better predict battery life expectancy. In construction, Cityzenith creates virtual replicas of buildings to create more efficiency in the built environment. 

In healthcare, it’s now possible to build a digital twin of a patient’s organs to help clinicians’ diagnosis. Auckland District Health Board has created a digital twin of the Auckland City Hospital to enable it to model and remotely manage the hospital's physical assets and improve how each resource is used.

Currently the digital twin concept lacks clear definitions and also standards, however. The Digital Twin Consortium is attempting to clarify and drive the concept for broader adoption. And in the built environment, the Cambridge University's Centre for Digital Built Britain (CABB) has formed a programme to create a National Digital Twin that it calls “an ecosystem of connected digital twins to foster better outcomes from our built environment”.

Mark Enzer, head of the National Digital Twin Programme, concludes digital twin initiatives are part of the digital transformation of all businesses: “Being able to get that insight from organisations developing and connecting digital twins in the here and now is incredibly important to making the National Digital Twin Programme work for all across industry, academia, and government.”

Gigremosa reiterates this more comprehensive view of how digital twins can communicate: “The value of the twin internally is good, but the greater value is when we can start connecting our twins to the twins of our customers, our suppliers’ twins and beyond. We can generate so much value and insight by having an ecosystem of twins.”

Once enough businesses have developed their digital twins, a critical mass can be reached. Connecting several twins together creates new opportunities and efficiencies can be improved, with costs reduced and customer experiences enhanced. 

As the digital ecosystem expands thanks largely to IoT and the fast mobile broadband environments 5G will deliver, digital twins can be built to take full advantage of these new digital environments. Layer a digital twin onto its physical counterpart, releases the physical systems from many of its constraints. 

The agility that a digital twin can deliver is discrete, but ultimately, it’s the connections that twins can make between each other that enables businesses to evolve and innovate.

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