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Tech Explained: Digital twin technology

Manufacturing

What are digital twins and how will they help deliver the innovations of the future?

The concept of pairing, or twin, technology involves creating a model that mimics a physical system. One of the most famous examples of this was during the Apollo 13 rescue mission, when NASA engineers on the ground used components identical to those on the stricken space capsule to find a way to repair its systems and return the astronauts home. The problem the NASA engineers faced was how to repair or monitor a physical system remotely. Today, industries are using digital models, instead of physical models, to solve this problem.

In 2002, engineer Dr. Michael Grieves proposed the term ‘digital twin’ to mean a digital model of a physical system. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IoT) technology, digital twins are now used to model everything from individual components to entire manufacturing plants. So, what is digital twinning, and how can it help industry?

To create a digital twin, a digital model is developed using computer-aided design and modelling software. Connected sensors are then used to collect data from the object or system being modelled. This data is sent back to the digital twin and is used to replicate every aspect of the physical system.

For example, Rolls Royce is using digital twin technology to develop aircraft engines. Rather than rely on probability to tell engineers when an engine might need maintenance or repair, the engineers create a digital twin of the engine. On-board sensors and live satellite feeds on the physical engine collect data, which is sent to the digital model in real time. The digital twin then ‘runs’ and ‘wears out’ just like the real engine, and can be used to model how the engine components are wearing and when they will need maintenance.

In another example, GE is using digital twin tech to model wind farms. It builds digital wind farms and ‘runs’ them, then analyses the data to find the best configuration for each turbine before building them.

Another promising area for digital twin technology is with consumer items. For example, sensors in a car’s engine could be used to detect when the oil needs changing. The car’s digital twin would then alert the car owner, possibly using an app on their smartphone.

Digital twins are also being used in urban planning. Springwise recently wrote about software developed by Dassault Systemes, which digitally recreated the city of Singapore. The virtual model used real time data on traffic, demographics, climate and other factors to test changes to the urban environment before putting them into practice. By modelling the changes first, planners can innovate and find the best solutions without causing disruption.

Digital twinning is appearing in healthcare and medical research. Virtual hospitals could model staffing, cleaning and operational strategies to help optimise patient care.

Even more exciting, digital twin tech could one day be used to model an individual’s genome, physiology, and lifestyle to create truly personalised medicine. This is still in the future, although Dassault has already released the ‘Living Heart’. This software takes a 2D scan of a human and creates an accurate, full dimensional digital twin of that person’s heart. The virtual model can account for blood flow, mechanics and electricity. Eventually, doctors may be able to use digital humans to test new medicines and medical procedures, and prepare for surgery. French start-up Sim&Cure has developed digital twin models for treating brain aneurysms. A full-scale human may not be far behind.