How Digital Twins Are Reinventing Innovation

From faster and cheaper drug trials to fully “conscious” cities, digital replicas are changing the face and pace of innovation.

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Last year the world held its breath as Notre Dame Cathedral stood shrouded in flames.

After the fire was extinguished, and it was revealed that the iconic cathedral was not lost, the hard work of restoration began. Until very recently, that process would have begun with a search through dusty archival blueprints to guide the intricate repair works. But in the age of the digital twin, engineers and architects were able to consult a digital model of the French cathedral — one far more detailed and interactive than any blueprint — which allowed them to stay true to the original structure while also incorporating new innovations in design and materials.

As its name suggests, a digital twin is a virtual replica of an object, being, or system that can be continuously updated with data from its physical counterpart. Supported by an estimated 25 billion connected global sensors by 2021, digital twins will soon exist for millions of things. A jet engine, a human heart, even an entire city can all have a digital twin that mirrors the same physical and biological properties as the real thing.

The implications are profound: real-time assessments and diagnostics much more precise than currently possible; repairs literally executed in the moment; and innovation that is faster, cheaper, and more radical.

An Innovation Game Changer

Many commentators today worry about a crisis of innovation afflicting companies and economies. Some say we’re running out of new ideas and “life-altering” innovations. Others claim that innovation is crippled by bureaucracy and regulation.

But a more basic explanation is that innovation has always been difficult. It takes time. It requires costly trial and error. And it often faces significant ethical, social, and regulatory obstacles.

Consider car manufacturing, where development time has shortened from 54 months in the 1980s yet still takes 22 months today. Or the development of new lifesaving drugs, where the journey from discovery to commercialization can last decades.

Digital twins stand to change the innovation game by enabling three critical drivers:

1. Continuous evaluation. Traditionally, most complex products could be fully analyzed, piece by piece, only twice during their lifetime — when they were created and when they were broken down at the end of their life cycle.



An MIT SMR initiative exploring how technology is reshaping the practice of management.
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Comments (2)
Rik Dryfoos
Great story about digital "as built" data for the Notre Dame Cathedral. That is certainly a sort of "twin" - as is the remote representation of a patient's heart in the surgery example. But when you say that "a digital twin is a virtual replica of an object, being, or system" you imply that a digital twin might reveal details that were not specifically considered with the algorithms were created. This is a popular misconception about what a digital twin really is. 

The example that I use to explain a digital twin, is a Hurricane's "Forecast Cone". 

The forecast cone is an area of probability created by algorithms (the American and/or European Forecast Models) paired with the real, observed data. The physical twin is the Hurricane. The digital twin is the projection. So math plus data equals estimated or projected status - and that estimate or projection IS the digital twin. The math is written by humans and the data is collected by sensors. Together they can produce powerful life and money saving insights.

But digital twins can only tell us about what we have developed them to tell. You can't use a path forecasting tool to learn about the likely wave heights UNLESS wave heights are specifically part of the mathematical model. Too often, popular writing and marketing materials imply that digital twins can reveal new and novel insights that they were never programmed to provide.  

So yes, there is huge potential with digital twins and they do reduce time and improve information about everything from hurricanes, to high pressure shrouds in GE90 jet engines and human hearts. But so far, they are only as smart as the math we write. Maybe someday they will use some sort of machine learning to create their own new and novel math - but that is not the digital twin of today.
Larry Bradley
Granted, though it is rare, science fiction occasionally becomes science fact. Still, it is somewhat curious that MiTSloan has invested itself so heavily in "Digital Culture," which is the "String Theory" of the corporate world. My own prognostication--and fervent hope--is that in a few years we will hear nothing more about "Digital Culture." As best as I can tell from my vast research, no one ever declared that we were headed into a "machine culture" or "steam culture" or "electricity culture." Technology does not a culture make. Neither does technology have its own culture, especially one that has as its defining features "intelligence" or "consciousness." Have fun with the science fiction while it lasts. I, for one, would like to see a more intelligent, conscious and scientific treatment of culture.