The intelligent, digital depictions are intended to optimize all sectors across planning, construction, and the operation of machines, buildings, or entire production lines – all while saving costs. One reason why, according to Gartner, the global digital twin market hit 3 billion US dollars in sales in 2020. By 2026, it is estimated that turnover will reach almost 50 billion US dollars with an annual increase of 58 percent.
The growth could be even greater, if companies were to recognize the true potential of digital twins. Today digital twin technology is widely used in simulations: the automotive industry uses the digital depictions for crash test simulations, for example. For the production of the e-tron GT, Audi tested and optimized all assembly processes with virtual copies of the real models. One part of this is 3D scans. Vehicle manufacturers save huge sums here, since considerably fewer prototypes need to be driven into the wall.
However, only newer technologies such as 3D processes, cloud platforms, 5G, and campus networks are unleashing the full potential of digital twins. With their physical depiction, they then form a bidirectional system. The real object and its digital equivalent are virtually linked to one another. They interactively exchange information with each other, learn from one another, and develop further into a self-controlled system.
In addition, digital twins are moving away from pure data sets and developing into "tangible" 3D models, in which users can move through objects and landscapes much like in a modern 3D video game. This simplifies the use for non-IT people who are unable to “grasp” raw data sets. This development, into "traversable" depictions of reality, has given rise to entirely new potential applications for digital twins. A digital twin is only intelligent if it depicts processes with which procedures can be tested, adjusted, and optimized. In this way, it can offer help in planning, realization, maintenance, operation, expansion, quality control, and much more.
An example from the construction industry: for the most part, planners, architects, construction companies, and facility managers create the plans for a building using only information that is tailored to their requirements. To do this they often use their own tools which are not compatible with one another. The distributed data cannot be collated for specific calculations. With the 3D twin model, the entire life cycle of a building and the data can be intelligently connected – from planning, design, and construction to the management of the building later on. The digital twin even provides support during demolitions, since it can give precise information about materials used and the respective locations. It is crucial for future construction projects that data from the operation of the building flows into the digital twin. This enables planners and architects to learn how people use the building. This information can be useful in later projects.
It will be interesting when digital twins can be supplied with current data from the production process and thereby brought to life. In this way, IoT data flows into the twin, for example room temperatures or machine status data. This enables buildings, production lines or company premises to be controlled using a 3D twin. Each property's utility – for example the heating system, lighting, or piping – receives all relevant information from planning through to operation. In contrast to pure dashboard displays for typical asset management systems, room-related digital twins offer an intuitive and informative context: the real space.
If errors occur during operation, by clicking on the object, you can ascertain which component is affected. If the digital twin is linked to an ERP system, an embedded hyperlink to a supplier or an online shop can even allow users to directly order replacement parts. This saves facility managers time and money, and fewer service employees are needed to carry out routine rounds or inspect the object in the event of a malfunction.
This example shows the latent potential of digital twins, when companies make use of the latest technological innovations. Alongside 3D spatial representation, these include the use of 5G or the cloud. In real time, current IoT object data can flow into the real-time 3D twin. If virtual twins are produced in the cloud, applications such as artificial intelligence or machine learning can be used as needed and all properties can access the centrally stored models.
In certain industrial areas, digital twins are created as part of the development process from the very beginning. Conversely, the retroactive creation of virtual depictions of existing objects has hitherto been costly and data intensive. This, among other factors, because the retroactive capturing of buildings, bridges, railroad tracks, or technical facilities often uses terrestrial or drone-assisted laser scanners. These processes generate large volumes of data and are expensive. As an alternative to this, our partner LocLab Consulting uses photo and videogrammetry: this process reduces the cost of capturing the data significantly, since the models are created using simple digital and/or action cameras. In addition, the volume of data produced is far smaller. Data-saving vector models are calculated from the input data in a semi-automated process.
3D twins offer companies new opportunities. They represent a paradigm shift within the economy. The use of digital twin applications is currently in its early stages, which can be attributed to a lack of support from management, financial obstacles, or reluctance to bear the cost of initial investments in the technology. However, business cases are increasingly being developed, which give a compelling demonstration of the potential offered by 3D twins. And – albeit slowly – implementation know-how is making its way onto the market. If internal structures can then be adapted and the interdisciplinary use of digital twins enabled, nothing will stand in the way of the 3D twin's march to victory. There is hardly a branch of industry that doesn't stand to benefit and T-Systems is turning the 3D twins into a reality.