We’ll admit that there’s some hyperbole in that headline, and the digital twin isn’t dead yet. But before long it might be.
Starting with first principles, a digital twin is a representation of a physical device or asset that exists in the digital world. Basic digital twins will represent information about a device’s current state, including things like ambient temperature and operating conditions. More sophisticated digital twins can include a range of other information, including:
More sophisticated digital twins can also be cloned into a modelled environment, to analyse how a specific physical device might function in certain modelled scenarios, potentially interacting with other digital twins. Various kinds of physics-based modelling techniques cut across the domains listed above, including analysing (for instance) how a device might dissipate heat, or be effected by impacts, or might interact with electromagnetic radiation, and so on.
Right now, there are two quite different ‘on-ramps’ for the development of digital twins. The first on-ramp (IT-centric) is essentially the development of digital twins motivated by IT needs: these are digital representations of physical devices developed specifically to support digital transformation initiatives, and will generally initially represent a range of current operating parameters. The second on-ramp (production-centric) is at the product design stage, where CAD (computer aided design) and modelling techniques are used right from the early stages of product conception and support the development of all aspects of a product.
In the first of these approaches, it is effectively the physical asset that is the ‘master’ and the digital twin reflects the condition of that asset. But in the second approach, it is the digital representation of the physical asset that is the ‘master’ and the actual physical device is simply a specific instantiation of the information contained in a digital master. Effectively, that makes the asset in question a ‘physical twin’.
Right now, both approaches are widely adopted. Over time, however, we expect that the physical twin approach will come to dominate. The thing is that once a (IT-centric) digital twin has been developed, it is natural to want to augment the information contained in the digital twin with additional contextual and historical information to support new analyses. Essentially, this results in a continual voyage of discovery as more and more information types are added to the digital twin. A product-centric digital twin is completely different in this regard: all of the information that anybody might possibly want can be included in the digital image of the asset in question from day-1 and be maintained over time. The passage of time will change dynamics too. Right now it is often necessary, for instance, to create a digital twin of a production facility building to support a digital transformation initiative. In 10 years time, an equivalent production facility may effectively be a physical twin of a computer generated design and there would be no need to create a new digital twin to represent it since the digital master already exists.
The production-centric approach also helps with fragmentation of digital twins (see Standards for (and ownership of) Digital Twins), since the production-centric approach naturally results in a ‘Primary’ digital twin, to which all others can refer.
So the digital twin might not be dead, but it’s days are looking numbered. In future, project managers undertaking digital transformation projects will be increasingly likely to reference the ‘digital masters’ of assets, rather than constructing new ‘digital twins’ of those assets.