For companies that develop products or processes, Digital Twin technology promises to improve the performance of your business. It will not only increase your engineers’ creativity, innovative power and effectiveness as a team, it will also impact marketing, sales and the way you service and manage your customer base. Overall Digital Twin technology will greatly improve the efficiency of your business, bring you closer to your customers and will lead to better returns and a stronger competitive position.

What is a Digital Twin?

Your engineering department almost certainly makes use of computer aided design and manufacturing technologies for physical components, including simulation techniques. These technologies provide a relatively constrained 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 portrayal of a system and also the environment in which the system operates. The world in which a digital twin is constructed contains governing rules and principles which are applied to the twin itself, in much the same way that a system in the real world is subject natural laws and principles. For example, gravity, friction, temperature and light are fundamental constituents of the virtual world of a digital twin. This means that the way in which a digital twin behaves in its virtual world is the closest analogy to an equivalent real-world system that technology can produce at the current time.

This has huge, valuable consequences for business. Clearly, the ability to visualise a system under development and to easily communicate about it with stakeholders has advantages. Customers can be involved in the earliest stages of system design and can provide valuable feedback at a moment when changes can still be made cheaply. But engineers can also study the operation of the system and optimise its design and construction before it becomes physically manifest, saving both time and money. Marketing stories can be developed in advance of a physical prototype being available and sales can engage with new customers by showing them the digital twin. Training departments can teach end users how to operate the system in advance of delivery. Overall digital twin technology will make your engineering process more efficient and shorten your time to a market that is already primed and ready for your product, process or service.

The Digital Twin Market

The digital twin is one of the technologies that is emerging because of a rapid proliferation of computing power and an abundance of sensor data generated from an increasing number of IoT-devices. These trends are helping digital models and simulations to become more accurate every year. Deloitte forecasts that the global market for digital twin technologies will reach $16 billion by 2023. IDC predicts that 30% of Global 2000 companies will be using data from digital twins of IoT connected products and assets to improve product innovation success rates and organisational productivity, achieving gains of up to 25%.

Traditional computer aided design (CAD) tool behemoths like Autodesk, Dassault or Siemens have all recognised the advantage of using digital twin technology and they are investing large amounts of capital in the subject. But strangely enough they are not the pioneers or real innovators in this new market. The drive to realise the most effective digital twin comes from an industry where players are in a race to make the virtual world appear as close to reality as possible, namely the gaming industry. In fact, the gaming industry spends far more money on mimicking the real world than the all the traditional CAD-companies combined.

The motor behind the gaming market is visualisation engine development. Driven by consumers that are hungry for the ultimate experience and exploiting the increasing power of graphic processor chips, big players in this field employ thousands of engineers working on virtualisation algorithms, mathematics and software. The gaming engine market alone is expected to reach a total revenue of 3 Billion dollars by 2022, and it is driven by a total gaming market revenue of 150 Billion dollars (expected for 2019).

In an effort to expand into new markets, the bigger fish of the gaming engine market like Crytec, Unity, Unreal, and Rockstar are now making their core technology platforms available for applications outside gaming, high tech systems being one of the markets identified. Such platforms need extensive adaption and enhancement before they are suitable to be used for digital twin applications but nevertheless provide an incredibly powerful technology foundation that could not otherwise be economically developed purely for digital twin use. For example, Unit040 is an HTSc member that taps into the technology platform of game engine developer Unity. Unit040 has adapted and enhanced the Unity platform with a range of features and functions that enable it to be efficiently and effectively used to construct digital twins of high-tech systems. Unit040’s customers can use their resulting PRESpective product, including the Unity platform, to develop a digital twin directly or with the assistant of experts from Unit040.

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 realising a digital twin largely centres on integrating this information together in the target virtual world at an appropriate level of detail. In other words, a digital twin is built upon output from existing design tooling and does not replace it. Rather it adds another layer where all this otherwise isolated information is integrated together. Into this mix the digital twin also adds its virtual world’s governing rules and principles, including motion, gravity, collision detection and even complex physics like thermodynamics. The result is an extremely accurate and (potentially) detailed working model of the target system in its intended environment. This helps engineers to validate their assumptions and facilitate the communication with customers and their peers in other R&D disciplines.

The ability to visualise 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 is very difficult to achieve by any other means. 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 to analyse their work more thoroughly and see problems before they even occur.

Another major benefit of a digital twin is that it enables efficient concurrent development of hardware and software. Conventionally, the hardware and software for a system are often developed largely in isolation from each other. The integration of the two often occurs at a late stage in the product development lifecycle and usually results in expensive reworking of the software. To mitigate this effect, software development is often started only when hardware development is fairly advanced, potentially lengthening 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’s virtualised hardware is identical to its real hardware. This means that the system’s software cannot discern a difference between the digital twin and its real-world counterpart and therefore can be fully developed and commissioned in parallel with the real hardware, resulting in a dramatic reduction in time to market and software development cost.

A further benefit of a digital twin is that it reduces the number of physical prototypes needed. Conventional product engineering often requires the development of four or five physical prototypes. The use of a digital twin can reduce that down 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 whole product lifecycle. For example, once a product or process is operating in the field, sensor data can be collected and used to improve the digital twin model in constant feedback loops to reach a better match with reality. The digital twin can then be used for diagnosing problems with a real-world system or for predictive maintenance. Field upgrades can be tested in advance of deployment, further reducing the cost of field maintenance.

The threshold cost for setting up a digital twin is estimated to be about €50.000. On average, using a digital twin saves companies between 20 to 30 percent of development costs. Therefore the use of a digital twin becomes economical for the development of high tech systems that would conventionally cost € 150,000 – € 200,000.- or more to realise. Of course, as digital twin technology improves, economies of scale will develop, reducing the threshold cost and allowing its application on a wider scale.