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This is the age of the digital twin

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A virtual world is evolving that is helping the real world work better. In this linked world, every product, every process, every thing has its own dedicated virtual counterpart – its digital twin.

Originally, the birth of the digital twin stemmed from the design process which, apart from where design spins off to art or hand-crafted creations, is a digital process. Obviously this has transformed design and manufacturing, and it has consequently become more accurate, repeatable and reusable. Automation within the process has smoothed the flow through design, prototyping, ramp-up and full manufacturing. But just when you might think the impact of digital technologies was reaching its limit, designers, manufacturers and operators started to realise that further opportunities were presenting themselves. And so the concept of the digital twin emerged.

‘Digital twin’ means different things to different people, as our related feature articles illustrate, and certainly the term can be used in many different ways. At its core, it is a virtual representation of a physical thing.

While this may sound like no more than the CAD model created in the design phase, it becomes so much more when further information is piled into the mix – information about materials, failures, stresses and strains, usage, maintenance schedules and the life expectancy of parts.

Wireless high-speed communications and the Internet of Things have gone hand in hand with developments in sensor technology to create a connected environment where all information is potentially at the fingertips of many – so much information that the Data has become Big, and it is perhaps the further ability to use this Big Data usefully that is now really paving the way to the development of the digital twin.

This digital twin becomes a virtual and yet living replica of the real thing. Hence simulations can be run on the digital twin that will give accurate representations of how possible changes would affect the real product. Or process. Or service.

Or anything really. Digital twins are undergoing a population boom as people realise that this virtual model now can deliver huge benefits over the lifecycle of any project.

Manufacturers were among the first to embrace this, seeing it as a way to use simulation to predict and optimise performance and maintenance schedules on the products they created, spanning every phase of that product’s existence from design right through to end-of-life management. Information taken from sensors on the real product is updated on its digital twin so that the two evolve together.

More recently, we have seen the emergence of manufacturers embracing the digital twin philosophy to cover their processes and factories as well as to ensure that they are running as reliably and productively as possible.

Product development cycles have been shortened, with less time spent refining physical prototypes, and the end products are of better quality.

It is no surprise that the virtues of having a virtual model to be used as both control and testbed have appealed across many other sectors.

In our series of articles, we look at how the digital twin model is being developed for use in industry, construction, automotive and even, although it might be stretching the terminology, in areas as diverse as the human body and smart cities.

Effectively, as we build the world around us, in order to make that world function at its best, we are building a virtual world, or at least the components of one, to sit alongside it.

Now in its third year, the annual collaboration between the IET, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and Immerse UK focuses on the cross-sector adoption of immersive technologies, with digital twins set to be one of the major talking points this year. Registration is now open.

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