What Is a Digital Twin?

Digital twins—virtual replicas of a physical product, process, or system—bridge physical and digital worlds. This article guides you through some of the most promising current and future use cases for digital twins.

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What-is-Digital-Twin-Technology-and-Where-is-it-Really-Headed
Illustration: © IoT For All

For the past several years, the internet has been ringing with a new buzzword: digital twin. And, more recently, the term “digital twin of an organization (DTO)” has been added to the mix—as seen by Gartner’s move to add DTO to its list of top ten strategic technology trends for 2019.

As digital twins grow in complexity and move from being digital representations of single items to models of systems of interconnected things, more businesses are seeing the technology as an opportunity to orchestrate people, processes, and things in a sophisticated way, resulting in better business outcomes, as well as benefits for everyone. But is the technology really here to stay? And where do its biggest opportunities lie for the future?

This article looks at what a digital twin really is, how to decipher truth from the buzz, and where the technology is headed—especially as they mature and expand in the scope.

What Is a Digital Twin?

At its simplest, a digital twin is a virtual replica of a physical product, process, or system. It acts as a bridge between physical and digital worlds by using sensors to collect real-time data about a physical item. This data is then used to create a digital duplicate of the item, allowing it to be understood, analyzed, manipulated, or optimized. Other terms used to describe the technology over the years have included virtual prototyping, hybrid twin technology, virtual twin, and digital asset management.

Although digital twins have been around for several decades, it’s only been since the rapid rise of IoT that they’ve become more widely considered as a tool of the future. They’re getting attention because they also integrate things like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to bring data, algorithms, and context together, enabling organizations to test new ideas, uncover problems before they happen, get new answers to new questions, and monitor items remotely.

How Are Digital Twins Being Used?

Now that we’ve addressed the often elusive question, what is digital twin technology?, we can now explore how the technology has been used to improve business processes. Digital twins were traditionally used to improve the performance of single assets, such as wind turbines or jet engines. In recent years, however, they have become more sophisticated. Now, they connect not just one asset but rather systems of assets or even entire organizations. As they bring together more and more assets and combine them with information about processes and people, their ability to help solve complex problems is also increasing.

Applications in Health Care

A good example of where digital twins are being used at the organizational level is in health care. By digitally cloning a hospital, hospital administrators, doctors, and nurses can get powerful, real-time insight into patient health and workflows. Using sensors to monitor patients and coordinate equipment and staff, they offer a better way of analyzing processes and alerting the right people at the right time when immediate action is needed.

As a result, emergency room wait times can be reduced and patient flow can be improved, decreasing operational costs and enhancing the patient experience. One hospital measured a 900 percent improvement in cost savings after implementing digital twin technology to remove bottlenecks in patient flow. Moreover, digital replicas can be used to predict and prevent patient emergencies like cardiopulmonary or respiratory arrest, known as code blues emergencies, resulting in more lives saved. In fact, one health care network that implemented digital twin technology in their hospitals saw a 61 percent reduction in code blue events.

Use Cases in Commercial Real Estate

Another place where digital twins can have a big impact at the organizational level is in commercial real estate buildings. They allow building operators to bring together previously unconnected systems—from security to HVAC to wayfinding systems—to gain new insights, optimize workflows, and monitor processes remotely. They can also be used to give occupants more control over their own workspaces and environmental conditions, thereby enhancing the tenant experience.

By optimizing systems and connecting people, owners and operators can use digital twins to reduce costs, avoid future costs, increase occupancy rates, and improve overall asset value. In fact, we’ve calculated that they can lower operating costs in some buildings by up to 88 cents per square foot per year.

Is “Digital Twin” Just Another Buzzword?

The term digital twin is cropping up everywhere. Is it really here to stay? The consensus is a resounding yes. In fact, trends suggest that we’re on the verge of a digital twin explosion. Research by Gartner has found that 48 percent of organizations using IoT are also using or plan to use digital twins in 2018. Moreover, 50 percent of large manufacturers will have at least one digital twin initiative launched by 2020, and the number of organizations using them will triple by 2022. In other words, they’re here to stay.

Where the variation lies is in how digital twins are implemented. Digital twin technology can be used in new and mature ways, integrating sophisticated sensors, AI, and machine learning, to solve the organization’s biggest challenges. In order to maximize their usefulness, they need to be powered by high-performing databases that can pull together and process many data sets in real-time.

What Is the Future of the Digital Twin?

Where they offer new and remarkable possibilities is at the organizational level in the built environment. Implementing them in hospitals or commercial real estate buildings, for instance, offers the potential to create beneficial outcomes not only for building administrators or owners but also for the people inside of those buildings. In this way, they can be used to take a people-centric approach (starting with people) then looking at problems and context, and finally adding IT systems and connected devices to try to solve big problems and create long-term value.

For companies and organizations that already use IoT, digital twins are the next step along the digital journey. They can be used to improve efficiencies, optimize processes, detect problems before they occur, and innovate for the future. If your organization is interested in producing not only better business outcomes, but also better outcomes for everyone, digital twins are worth exploring.

Michael Monteith
As a seasoned entrepreneur and technology executive with more than 20 years of experience serving the public and private sectors, Mike has established himself as one of Canada’s leading experts in information technology for the built environment. Capable of bridging the gap between business innovation and IT, Mike is solving the challenge of integration and interoperability in healthcare and commercial real estate settings. Prior to founding ThoughtWire in 2009, Mike was a senior advisor and technology consultant, where he acquired expertise in business and enterprise strategy, IT strategy, enterprise architecture, and large-scale program implementation.