If you haven’t heard of digital twin technology yet, you will soon. While there is plenty of exaggerated and hypothetical talk about a virtual reality world called the metaverse, scientists are busy building a three-dimensional simulation of Earth. In other words, they are creating our planet’s digital twin.
Digital Twins Defined
What is a digital twin? It’s a virtual representation of real-world entities and processes, synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity. In other words, it is an exact digital replica of a physical object. Engineers use digital twins as part of digital transformation in aerospace manufacturing and, more broadly, Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution. But scientists, doctors, designers and other experts are also starting to use digital twins to monitor and understand the physical world on a deeper level.
How Digital Twins Work
When defining what is a digital twin, it’s important to realize that we can create digital twins at various levels. Digital twins can range from the tiniest transistor on a computer chip to something as vast and complicated as our planet’s weather pattern or a logistics company’s trucking route.
Digital twins take 3D simulation farther in the life cycle because they reflect changes in the real world. Say, for example, an architect designs a home. They can create a 3D model of that house and even simulate how the structure will hold up as weather and time erode the materials. But what if we want to know how the actual house is after it’s built? If a severe storm blows a few shingles off the roof, or if a child accidentally sends a baseball into a window, a digital twin would include those changes.
In practice, engineers equip the products they build with sensors to monitor them and update the virtual versions. In this way, they can monitor the product long after it leaves the factory floor. This helps with maintenance and informing future designs and iterations. According to IBM, digital twins are designed around a two-way flow of information.
Engineers also use the virtual model to run simulations, apply artificial intelligence and analyze the data they receive. Those insights are then shared with the physical object in the real world, creating a smart system and a constant feedback loop.
Use Cases for Digital Twins
Digital twins are particularly helpful for projects that involve physically large structures or mechanical complex systems. It’s no surprise that the aerospace industry, which involves large and complex designs, is quickly adding digital twin technology to its toolkit. Some examples of digital twins from IBM, Popular Mechanics and Fast Company include:
- Aircraft, spacecraft, automobiles, etc. in manufacturing
- Buildings, bridges and other infrastructure in design
- Energy sources and power equipment
- A digital twin of Earth for climate researchers to run simulations to understand how to plan for approaching extreme climate events and new challenges
- Hospitals and related ambulatory services twins for doctors and hospital administrators to optimize staffing and operations
- Patient digital twins to help physicians monitor disease progression and treatment
- Avatars of people suffering from chronic pain, which can help researchers optimize and predict the impact of medications
- Astronaut digital twins, which NASA is looking to utilize to prepare for deep space missions
Future of Digital Twins
Digital twins are possible now because several technologies have recently matured and become widely adopted, including the Internet of Things, cloud computing, extended reality and artificial intelligence. Digital twins are already making a difference, and as their underlying technologies mature, the potential impact grows, too.
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