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Digital twins to drive planning and sustainability

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Momentum is building in the development of digital twins, where digital versions of physical assets are created to understand the impact of changes from weather to human intervention.

These twins enable better planning and drive a greater understand of risk and the cause and effect of planning decisions and other variables. It is a technology which is spreading widely from urban planning of smart cities and into areas such as autonomous vehicles and supply chain management.

Singapore, for example, has been developing a digital twin of the entire city-state since 2014, and it can now change with the use of real-time data from the city such as traffic and human movement data. The Virtual Singapore model enables authorities to plan emergency evacuation routes, guide traffic and even identify likely disease outbreaks.

Digital twins aren’t only used in asset management. They are becoming useful in manufacturing, where companies use 3D models of the factory and all its components – including people – as a precursor to building the physical factory.  

Once that is created, sensors are also installed which connect back to the digital twin in real time so that the twin mirrors the condition and activity of the factory as it changes. 

In the UK, there is a National Digital Twin Program underway which describes itself as “an ecosystem of connected digital twins to foster better outcomes from our built environment.”

Three major utility providers – Anglian Water, BT and UK Power Networks – are collaborating on a Climate Resilience Demonstrator which was previewed at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow last year.

The UK plan is to develop a digital twin across energy, water and telecoms networks to provide a practical example of how connected data can improve climate adaptation and resilience.

Also in the UK a A$1 milllion digital testbed has announced by collaborators Queen’s University in Belfast, BT and Cisco to create a 5G digital factory.

Here, the idea is to create a facility for local industries to collaborate and explore the benefits of 5G connectivity and how it can improve their manufacturing operations.

Another application for digital twinning is in defence, an area which is already using virtualisation and simulation to train and test.

In Australia, consultants McKinsey & Company have won a A$10 million contract for a digital twin project which will assist in the future structuring of the Australian Army.

The twin is expected to assist the army in identifying areas for investment and to provide evidence for the investments, with a proof of concept expected to be completed this year.

A look around the world shows digital twins in action in a number of other industries.

In Spain, food processing company Campofrio is already using machine learning technologies as part of its sales forecasting process, and these insights are part of a digital twin project in collaboration with Accenture and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology which assesses the resilience and strength of its supply chain by replicating banking stress tests.

In Japan, vehicle services company UD Trucks has launched a data platform which uses digital twinning to prototype testing to identify engineering and supply chain issues more rapidly, improving quality of engineering products and optimising the supply chain.

The company already uses virtual and augmented reality in its design process, and its data sharing infrastructure creates a smoother flow of work through the manufacturing and operational processes.

Australian blood products company CSL is creating a digital twin of the A$130 billion company’s labs and equipment which can predict and prevent when componentry will fail, an initiative which will shore up the stability of the supply chain.

“It’s creating a vertical replica of all the componentry – the robotics, the equipment that actually fills the bottles for drugs, and understanding the maintenance schedule instead of relying on a logbook,” CSL’s Mark Hill told the Australian Financial Review earlier this year.

The common features in these initiatives are the use of the cloud, AI or ML analytics, sensors, multiple data sources and optimised connectivity.

In time, and probably soon, these twins will be part of every organisation’s analytic process as they combine and leverage digital tools to drive sustainability and resilience in an increasingly volatile world environment. 

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