What is the value of a Digital Twin?
What is a Digital Twin?
Your engineering department almost certainly uses computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies for physical components, including simulation techniques. These technologies provide a relatively limited and isolated view of the operation of an entire system. A digital twin takes the process of understanding the design and operation of an entire system to an entirely new, holistic level.
A digital twin is a working, virtual model of an entire product, process or service that is highly accurate both in its representation of a system and in the environment in which the system operates. The world in which a digital twin is constructed contains rules and principles that are applied to the twin itself, just as a system in the real world is subject to natural laws and principles. Gravity, friction, temperature, and light, for example, are fundamental components of the virtual world of a digital twin. This means that the way a digital twin behaves in its virtual world is the closest thing to an equivalent system in the real world that technology can currently produce.
This has huge, valuable implications for business. Clearly, the ability to visualize a system under development and easily communicate about it to stakeholders has benefits. Customers can be involved early in the system design process and can provide valuable feedback at a time when changes can still be made inexpensively. But engineers can also study the operation of the system and optimize its design and construction before it physically manifests, saving both time and money. Marketing stories can be developed before a physical prototype is available, and sales can appeal to new customers by showing them the digital twin. Training departments can teach end users how to operate the system before it is delivered. Digital twin technology makes your engineering process more efficient and shortens your time to a market that is already ready for your product, process or service.
The digital twin in practice
Most of the information needed to build a digital twin is usually routinely produced as part of a standard product engineering process: for example, 3D models for geometry, mechatronics, software, interfaces and electronic schematics. The process of realizing a digital twin largely focuses on integrating this information together into the intended virtual world at an appropriate level of detail. In other words, a digital twin relies on the output of existing design tools and does not replace them. Rather, it adds another layer where all this otherwise isolated information is integrated together. In this mix, the digital twin also adds the rules and principles of the virtual world, including motion, gravity, collision detection and even complex physics such as thermodynamics. The result is a highly accurate and (potentially) detailed working model of the intended system in the environment of interest. This helps engineers validate their assumptions and facilitates communication with customers and their colleagues in other R&D disciplines.
The ability to visualize how a target system functions should not be underestimated. A digital twin functions as a communication tool that helps engineers from different disciplines achieve a common understanding of each other's worlds - a feat that cannot be achieved in any other way. It breaks down the notorious barriers between mechanics, software, mechatronics and electronics: conflicting issues arise earlier and by involving and aligning all stakeholders, costly mistakes can be avoided. A digital twin also helps developers analyze their work more thoroughly and see problems before they arise.
Another major advantage of a digital twin is that it allows efficient simultaneous development of hardware and software. Conventionally, the hardware and software for a system are often developed largely separately. Integration of the two often occurs late in the product development life cycle and usually results in costly rework of the software. To mitigate this effect, software development is often started only when hardware development is quite advanced, potentially extending the overall time to market. One of the defining characteristics of a digital twin is that from the perspective of the target system's software, the target virtualized hardware is identical to the real hardware. This means that the system's software cannot distinguish any difference between the digital twin and its real-world counterpart and can therefore be fully developed and commissioned in parallel with the real hardware, resulting in a drastic reduction in software development time-to-market and cost.
Another advantage of digital twins is that fewer physical prototypes are required. Conventional product engineering often requires the development of four or five physical prototypes. Using a digital twin can reduce that to one or two, with all the inherent cost and time savings.
The benefits of a digital twin are not limited to product development, but apply to the entire product lifecycle. For example, once a product or process is active in the field, sensor data can be collected and used to improve the digital twin model in constant feedback loops to achieve a better match with reality. The digital twin can then be used to diagnose problems with a real-world system or for predictive maintenance. Field upgrades can be pre-tested, further reducing field maintenance costs.
The threshold cost of setting up a digital twin is estimated to be around 50,000 euros. On average, using a digital twin saves companies between 20 and 30 percent of development costs. This makes the use of a digital twin more economical for the development of high tech systems that would conventionally cost €150,000 - €200,000 or more to realize. Of course, as digital twin technology improves, economies of scale will emerge, lowering the threshold cost and enabling its adoption on a larger scale.