Energy players, such as offshore oil projects, are using digital twins to improve safety and reduce costs ©Aker Solutions
Energy players, such as offshore oil projects, are using digital twins to improve safety and reduce costs ©Aker Solutions

Tech briefing: digital twins

6 September 2019

A digital twin is a virtual copy of a physical structure or component created using real-time data, which can then replicate the functions of the real item.

By monitoring and testing how the digital twin operates, the data gathered can predict where and when there may be problems or maintenance needed on the real physical structure. The digital twin market is expected to grow annually by over 38%, passing the $26 billion point by 2025, according to a recent DHL Trend Research report Digital Twins in Logistics.

How it works
By running a digital equivalent of a product that is inaccessible – such as those in remote or dangerous places like an oil rig – under the same conditions as the real product, data provided via sensors allows the operators to monitor any stresses on a real product as it is working and predict the outcomes.

The digital twin can find the cause of problems, anticipate breakages and suggest solutions. This can limit degradation of a structure or prevent stoppages by scheduling new parts or maintenance before it is needed. It can also recommend materials changes in the supply chain.

The first digital twin concept is credited to Dr Michael Grieves at the University of Michigan, who presented a paper in 2002 on product lifecycle management, describing the process without giving it that name.

Sports car maker McLaren was also an early adopter, around the same time simulating a car design that predicted performance before it was built. But commercial use of the technology is more recent, having only become viable with advances in computer power, faster data transfer and more cost-effective technology.

Today, the energy, automotive, construction and manufacturing sectors all benefit from digital twins. Energy companies, such as offshore oil projects and wind turbines, have used the technology to improve safety and reduce costs.

Rolls-Royce has been able to demonstrate how power output in aeroplane engines can be made more efficient and, by monitoring data of the working of internal parts, can advise suppliers on any materials upgrades needed. Honeywell and GE use digital twins to boost productivity and efficiencies in industrial manufacturing. And large technology companies, such as IBM, SAP and Microsoft, are all working with digital twins in some way.

Construction companies have also used it to improve operations, from increased efficiency of the supply chain and logistics to ensuring better onsite safety for workers. And a digital map that was created of Notre Dame in Paris before a fire destroyed much of it earlier this year will help significantly in the reconstruction. The £4bn restoration of the Palace of Westminster will also use digital twin technology to create efficiencies and cost savings through the supply chain.

What next?
To manage supply chains and enable end to end delivery of digitally monitored products, businesses must work with logistics services using solutions such as control towers to monitor digital twins and optimise functions, says the DHL report. There will also be a scaling up into larger infrastructure projects.

In India, the state of Andhra Pradesh is developing a digital twin of a new capital city to monitor environmental conditions during construction and, upon completion, the traffic management system and more. The city, Amaravati, will be designed by architects Foster + Partners with support from digital twin software provider Cityzenith. Amaravati hopes to become one of the most digitally advanced cities in the world, according to DHL.

As virtual reality 3D technology advances, there are opportunities for optimising visualisations, with data being more interactive through 3D rendering.

DHL has launched a digital twin warehouse with Tetra Pak in Asia. By combining the IoT technology with analytics, Tetra Pak can monitor and simulate the state and behaviour of the warehouse assets in real-time, resolving issues as they occur, improving safety and productivity.
Source: Gartner

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