What is a digital twin?

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UK infrastructure, like many industries, is going through a period of significant transformation with digital technologies underpinning much of this change. The current COVID19 situation will perhaps catalyse the pace of change as we consider a new normal. ‘Digital Twin’ in particular is emerging as a core capability that will underpin UK infrastructure as digital transformation continues to evolve.

Being a relatively new concept in the infrastructure sectors, the most common question I get asked is ‘what is a digital twin?’

Indeed, the more people I speak to, the greater my belief that there is a better question: ‘What could a Digital Twin be?’

The real beauty of Digital Twin is that the market is emerging, the ‘what’ is still being explored by those who will own and utilise them, predominately owner/operators of UK infrastructure assets.

You can, of course, speak to many organisations who can articulate a vision for Digital Twins that are tailored to their goods and services, and in my experience, these are generally valid examples.

Here are a few examples:

  • [Engineering Provider] Enabling clients to adjust parameters and assess the impact of real world behaviours to understand how an asset will perform over its whole life.
  • [Technology Provider] Allowing clients to integrate or simulate real world feedback to see how changing components within a system might affect overall risk profiles.
  • [Contractor] Allowing digital production management to evolve design data through the build process, ensuring an asset is ready for use in its operational phases.
  • [IT provider] Portraying a vision of enterprise systems being linked to real time information from sensors, leveraging internet of things capability.

All of the above are great examples of Digital Twin capabilities when considering the Gemini Principles definition ‘a realistic digital representation of assets, processes or systems in the built or natural environment’.  What excites me most, is what would happen if we considered integrating all these capabilities to create a fully integrated enterprise, to include supply chains and perhaps even citizens?

Think of what could be achieved, a design change could be tested against real time data in a simulation to assess how it would perform in operational life. Not only that, the link to enterprise systems would mean the impact on cost, risk, supply chain and other business metrics could also be tested. The possibilities are endless. Importantly many businesses already have the component pieces, they are however isolated rather than being integrated.

Taking this very broad, all-encompassing view, is tough for businesses to digest as they identify likely investment needs, work through value creation and understand risks. This is difficult when thinking about things on such a grand scale. This is why a good first step might be to develop a roadmap showing what a Digital Twin could be for your organisation.  This could be done by underpinning a high-level vision and working backwards to prioritise what to do now, in the mid and long term to help you get there. A roadmap should not be considered a fixed plan and must evolve with your business as it changes, however it provides direction and initial guidance on where to focus investments and create early value.

By taking this approach, digital twins can become part of an organization’s integrated enterprise.  By developing an integrated enterprise utilising the framework as set out in the ICE Project 13 (http://www.p13.org.uk/) , organisations will not constrain themselves by worrying too much about ‘what is a Digital Twin’, and can instead focus on what Digital Twin could be. This approach is being promoted by the water sector regulator OFWAT, termed ‘systems thinking’.  Systems thinking encourages a big picture mindset, identifying the pieces of the puzzle to create that big enterprise picture and approaching each piece of the puzzle in a structured way, towards a common goal.

The next big step for an integrated enterprise is to think about federating information across multiple organisations to create a National Digital Twin. It is this global opportunity that we should all be excited about, through collaboration between government, academia and industry the UK can be a world leader in the evolution of the digital economy.

To achieve this, we need to think big, be prepared to fail, not hold back and work together to evolve UK infrastructure to be a world leading centre of excellence.

Kevin Reeves is the Director of Internet of Things and Digital Twin at Costain.



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