Digital twins have taken hold across a range of sectors. Whether as a vision for place and property management or as an operational feature of aerospace manufacturing, digital twins are part of the mix. So much so that Microsoft has recently introduced ‘Digital Twins’ to its Azure cloud computing service – helping you to create digital models of physical environments. As a company deeply involved in all things place, aerospace and Azure we thought it timely to provide a quick dip into some of the opportunities that digital twins afford business.
Article originally published January 2017.
Back in 2006, the media got quite excited about a piece of software from an American virtual experience company called Linden Labs. Second Life was their new product, and this, we were told, was the future – a virtual world where everyone could escape the drudgery of their ‘first life’ by creating an online version of themselves – a digital twin.
This twin could enjoy life in Linden World with its own economy, culture and currency. While it still has a loyal following, Second Life didn’t reach the dizzy heights that were originally envisaged, possibly because living two lives is twice as hard as living one, or maybe because it mirrored real life too closely, with an unstable real estate market, crime and bank collapses.
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Thanks to advances in virtual reality technology, the concept of the ‘digital twin’ has made a comeback in recent years, but not in the way you may think – it is not about living out fantasies in digital worlds, but rather using them to solve problems in their physical counterpart. The concept of the digital twin may well revolutionise the world of engineering. Let’s take a look at how.
Make it real
Since the mid-eighties (and even earlier in some cases) pretty much every piece of engineering, be it an iPhone or an aircraft carrier, has been designed in a 3D CAD package. For years, turning these designs into objects that could be manipulated and tested in a wider environment required creating a physical manifestation, using a CNC machine, or more recently, a 3D printer. That’s great if you are designing a pair of pliers or a lampshade, but less practical for the aforementioned aircraft carrier.
This is where VR and AR comes in. Digitally designed 3D objects can be rendered in virtual reality relatively easily and, with the right equipment, can be viewed and manipulated as if they were in the real world.
Fail fast, fail safe
The aircraft carrier’s digital twin can also serve another purpose – crew training. Even before the real ship is launched, crew members of all types can familiarise themselves with the layout and the day-to-day operation of the ship. The crew do not even need to be in the same location – VR is the ideal tool for training and collaboration amongst a dispersed workforce. Immersive experiences demand the full attention of the trainee, making the learning more likely to be retained.
Practice makes perfect: Digital twinning is perfect for training a dispersed workforce.
On top of that, digital twins offer the freedom to fail. Let’s say an engineer attaches widget A to valve B, but in doing so he damages both the widget and the valve. In the real world, this could be a costly mistake meaning the parts can’t be used for any further experiments. In the digital space, an engineer could simply hit the ‘reset’ button to return the parts to their original state and try again. On a grander scale, nuclear reactor engineers could hone their designs in an environment where a meltdown is not the end of the world.
VR and the internet of things
But it doesn’t end there…Thanks to the Internet of Things, more and more objects, big and small, are being fitted with sensors to measure all manner of variables – think accelerometers, thermometers and pressure sensors, churning out huge amounts of data every second.
VR is already being used for data visualisation, allowing big data to be sliced and diced in new ways, but the digital twin offers the opportunity to go one step further. Imagine a system designed to move a control rod in the core of a nuclear reactor, where the actions in a virtual world control real world activity. This is a digital twin with real-world application and impact.
The application of digital twin technology can, in theory, be applied to anything and has a wide range of benefits. Consider the movie Apollo 13. Messrs Hanks, Bacon and Paxton were ultimately saved because the NASA team on the ground had a replica of the spacecraft and its equipment at mission control in Houston. As a result, they were able to find a way to save the crew by cobbling something together from the equipment they had with them. With a digital twin, it would have been like the Nasa scientists were there in the the spacecraft with them.
While VR technology is still relatively expensive, the cost is quickly dropping, and the flexibility and effectiveness of new technology mean that design, training and learning for engineering firms look likely to see huge disruption over the next 5-10 years.
The near future may see speed to market, safety and usability enhanced by digital twinning. However, for tomorrow’s engineers, digital twinning could be the go-to tool in their quest to save the world.
For insights into the here-and-now, as well as more glimpses into the future, take a look at the Calvium Blog.