What is a digital twin?

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A digital twin uses real-world data to create a virtual replica of any space or object in the physical world. Digital twins have already proven useful in industries ranging from manufacturing to sports to healthcare, and their global market is expected to reach $48.2 billion by 2026.

How does a digital twin work?

Digital twins are a combination of several enabling technologies; companies decide which technologies to use based on their needs. For example, they can use a combination of sensors, cloud computing, AI, augmented reality, virtual reality, etc. to find out what the space or object looks like.

Thanks to a network of sensors, the digital twins observe their physical environment to dynamically collect data in real time. Twins learn information and their contexts by interacting with humans, devices, and other digital twins. Digital twins can thus support critical decision-making, identify potential problems, optimize and improve systems, etc.

History of digital twins

The digital twins have officially been introduced by Michael Grieves in 2002 during a lecture at the University of Michigan, although NASA used the concept in the 1960s. In the presentation, Grieves described the concept of the digital twin by discussing real space, virtual space and the flow of information between the two spaces.

Digital twins were not fully adopted or officially named until 2010. NASA used the concept of digital twins to create digital simulations of space capsules and test vehicles. In 2017, Gartner named digital twins as one of the top 10 strategic technology trends, and the concept has been increasingly used ever since. The Internet of Things has since made digital twins more cost-effective and accessible, further popularizing the technology.

Examples and applications

Due to their customization and flexibility, digital twins have been used in many different industries and businesses for various purposes.

Health care

The health implications for digital twins are enormous. For example, they can design medical devices like vena cava filters. To create the filter, the researchers need the digital twin of the patient and the digital twin of the medical device. The two models are correlated, and researchers can see what happens when the device is fitted into a patient’s body without medical tools, surgery or side effects.

Photo credit: Living Heart Project

Likewise, the Living Heart Project develops highly accurate personalized digital human heart models based on MRI images and ECG data. By leveraging the digital twin heart, researchers can simulate in vivo (in a living organism) conditions, visualize unseen anatomy, and refine cardiology device designs more quickly.

Security

Digital twins replicate physical patterns, allowing them to steer people away from dangerous places and predict future trouble.

For example, bridge inspectors often hang on ropes to inspect the tens of thousands of bridges in every state. To save time and reduce risk, drone bridge inspections use photogrammetry to create a digital twin. The 3D model produces fast inspection, detailed analysis, and AI-detected defects, all while keeping inspectors out of harm’s way.

The Odin Safety 3D iTwin model accurately measures the electricity consumption of devices
The Odin Safety 3D iTwin model accurately measures the electricity consumption of appliances; Photo credit: Digital Energy

As for predicting future problems, Digital Energy’s ODIN Safety tool, for example, combines digital twin data with AI to predict and prevent potential industrial accidents. Once users have created an accurate digital twin with reality capture scanning, they can view virtual representations of physical assets within their facility in real time. The data can be fed into AI systems that predict potential hazards and accidents on a job site.

Health care

The health implications for digital twins are enormous. For example, they can design medical devices like vena cava filters. To create the filter, the researchers need the digital twin of the patient and the digital twin of the medical device. The two models are correlated, and researchers can see what happens when the device is fitted into a patient’s body without medical tools, surgery or side effects.

use digital twins for medical purposes
Photo credit: Living Heart Project

Likewise, the Living Heart Project develops highly accurate personalized digital human heart models based on MRI images and ECG data. By leveraging the digital twin heart, researchers can simulate in vivo (in a living organism) conditions, visualize unseen anatomy, and refine cardiology device designs more quickly.

Town planning

By 2050, 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban cities. This means that cities will likely continue to struggle with the consequences of rapid population growth such as air pollution, traffic congestion and inequality.

Digital twins are a possible solution to address design and sustainability issues in cities. By combining traditional 2D and 3D urban planning tools with digital twin technology, dynamic virtual city-scale models can be created. Virtual models allow planners to run simulations of different construction, traffic, energy use, etc. scenarios to determine possible outcomes without having to make any real changes.

For example, Chattanooga, Tennessee built a digital twin to anticipate and reduce traffic congestion. Researchers conducted digital twin experiments on a city street and found that over 90% of cars are stopped by red lights during the midday rush. As a result, the city recalculated the timing of traffic lights along the road to change their signal pattern every four minutes depending on traffic conditions. Thanks to digital twin technology, the city will be able to reduce traffic congestion by up to 30 percent.

Manufacturing

Some companies use digital twins to make the production process more efficient and flexible. For instance, Unilever APIsa multinational consumer goods company, created virtual models of its factories, hosted on Microsoft’s Azure platform.

IoT sensors provide real-time performance data, such as engine temperature and speed, which is combined with advanced analytics and machine learning algorithms to identify the best operating conditions. This helps manufacturers become more sustainable by limiting product waste and using materials more precisely. Unilever currently operates eight digital twin factories on four continents.

Architecture

Digital twins can be used in architecture to improve efficiency and security. For example, TK Elevator, in collaboration with Microsoft Azure, used a digital twin to create the world’s first cable-free elevator for a high-rise building.

The TK Elevator Test Tower in Germany houses the world's first cable-free elevator for a high-rise building;  Photo credit: TK Lift
The TK Elevator Test Tower in Germany houses the world’s first cable-free elevator for a high-rise building; Photo credit: TK Lift

In development, the digital twin simulated different situations, such as testing emergency brakes, which would have been costly and time-consuming in the physical world. During operation, the elevator now has more than 100 sensors per meter that continuously collect data for its digital twin. This data is sent to the Microsoft Azure digital cloud to find anomalies, predict future outages, generate insights for troubleshooting, and more.

The cable-free elevator improves efficiency because it allows an elevator to go as high as possible while using less space in the shaft. This will allow more people to move into high-rise buildings in a more spacious way. And, thanks to the digital twin, the lift will be totally secure.

For more information on how TK Elevator used Microsoft Azure’s digital twin program, we visited the TK Elevator test tower in Germany. Tune The world of tomorrow today on Saturday, September 17 at 8:30 a.m. EST on Science Channel and Sunday, September 18 at 6:30 a.m. EST on Discovery Channel to check it out.

For more information on digital twins, check out everything you need to know about digital twinsfrom Singapore digital replicathe digital copy of Ancient Olympiaand how the NFL uses digital twins.

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