Digital twins can be the intelligent edge for IoT

If you are involved with IOT, you have witnessed a surge of activity around the idea of a digital twin. The digital twin concept is not a new one — the term has been around since 2003, and you can see an example of use in NASA's experiments with pairing technologies for its Apollo missions. However, until recently, technology barriers made it difficult to create a true digital twin. Today, asset-heavy enterprises and others are using the breakthroughs in technology to plan or implement digital twin products or manufacturing processes. We can expect this interest and growth to continue: Gartner predicts that by 2021, half of all industrial companies will use digital twins and see an average efficiency gain of 10% from them. Digital twins ca n be the intelligent edge for IOT.

The most simple definition of a digital twin is an image connected to a physical object by a steady stream of data flowing from sensors, thereby reflecting the real-time status of the object. The data flow stream connecting the physical and digital is called a digital thread. In some implementations, the digital twin not only reflects the current state but also stores the historical digital profile of the object.

We cannot overstate the importance digital twins will have for a number of industries, especially for manufacturing installations and processes that need close interactions between machines and human. There are two key reasons for this: visualization and collaboration.

If you were to measure human senses in terms of bandwidth, sight is the highest. As a result, human decision-making is reliant on being able to see the situation in full and take necessary action. This is why factory floor managers usually had a floor overlooking the factory floor. Today, with manufacturing installations and machines becoming more complex, that advantage of being able to see the processes has largely disappeared. Instead, computerized systems feed data to shop-floor managers to enable decision-making through data sheets or basic charts.

A digital twin can combine the best of both worlds by presenting to decision-makers in real time the data in an exact visual replica, including information previously not available as easily, such as temperature or internal wear and tear. In fact, a digital twin far enhances the efficiency of the visual bandwidth by removing noncritical information, processing basic information into a format much more easily absorbable, and providing a more flexible (e.g., 360-degree or micro/macro) view of the system.

Finally, the visual aspect of digital twin technology also helps immediately benchmark and compare across historical data or best-in-class data in real time. The potential of this aspect is tremendous as it identifies areas of improvement, shows areas of immediate concern, and enables fast decision-making — all in real time.

The second critical aspect of a digital twin is the ability to share this digital view of machines irrespective of the viewer's physical distance. This, therefore, allows a large number of individuals to see, track, and benchmark manufacturing installations globally. This ability of digital twin manufacturing also removes the delay in reporting alerts to management, removes single points of failure due to human error, and makes seeking expert help easier.

A digital twin expands the horizon of access to the shop floor to product managers, designers, and data scientists. Armed with this new understanding of how processes and machines are working or not working, they can design better products and more efficient processes, as well as foresee problems/issues much earlier than before, saving time and reducing materials wasted on building physical models. They can also see the gaps between the desired and the actual, and do root cause analysis.