A primer on digital twin technology

Here’s what the digital-replication tech is used for, and how it works.
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· 4 min read

In the 21st century, the concept of a twin need not be confined to fraternal or identical—a twin can be digital too.

Digital twins have caught the eyes of some of the biggest companies in the world—Amazon and Nvidia, for instance, both made announcements about new digital-twin initiatives within the last month—as well as those of specialists like infrastructure engineering software company Bentley Systems.

The concept started gaining traction at the beginning of the century, and picked up steam in the early 2010s when the rise of IoT made digital twins more feasible. As of 2020, it was estimated to be a $3.1 billion market, per Markets and Markets, and projected to grow into a $48.2 billion industry by 2026.

So...what is a digital twin? Put simply, they’re re-creations or reconstructions of real-world objects, allowing everyone from manufacturers to government officials to harness the power of sensors, AI, and connectivity to create real-time replications or simulations of real-world objects, networks, and constructions.

“Digital twins are a digital and dynamic representation of a physical asset in its context,” Nicholas Cumins, chief product officer at Bentley Systems, told us. “The key word is ‘dynamic,’ meaning any change that happens to the physical asset has to be reflected in the digital asset...It allows for better, faster decision making.”

Digital twins are created from data, and that data can come from a host of sources, whether it’s drones, satellite imagery, train schedule and routes, lidar, or AI and machine learning technologies. Collecting these disparate sources of data under one roof opens the ability to re-create an actual asset like a hydroelectric dam, and then extrapolate it into predictions, inspection, and finally, action.

With digital twins, it’s possible to reduce the amount of in-person work necessary to complete a project, like sending someone into the field to do bridge or cell-tower inspections. One example: Bentley Systems collaborated with Portuguese water utility Águas do Porto in 2017 to create the digital twin component of its H2Porto project, which the utility said helped it identify pipes and sewers in need of repair, ultimately helping reduce supply interruptions by 23%.

Aside from potential cost savings, the tech could also help companies reduce the risks that come with having employees hang from the underside of a bridge during inspection, or climb a cell tower.

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Major tech companies like General Electric create digital twins of things like jet engines, wind farms, and off-shore oil rigs, while IBM runs a digital-twin exchange to match companies with software they would find useful.

Bentley Systems, for its part, largely creates digital twins for industries like construction, utilities, and city planning.

Bentley Systems added its proprietary iTwin digital-twin creation platform to its repertoire in 2018, and has partnered with the likes of Microsoft, creating an app for HoloLens 2 that enables users to examine digital twins in AR, integrated iTwin into Nvidia’s Omniverse, and partnered with drone manufacturer Skydio to capture photos of assets using drones. The company has brought in $693 million in revenue across the first nine months of 2021, up from $582 million over the same period in 2020.

Bentley didn't share specific metrics around its iTwin platform, but the company said digital twin services are included in some of its application and cloud service offerings, but are not currently the main driver of value.

Beyond industry applications, Bentley has also worked with cities like Berlin and Helsinki, the latter of which established a €1 million ($1.13 million) digital-twin project in 2016 to build a 3D model of the entire city. The model is publicly available and is used to facilitate collaboration between government offices, but also universities, companies, and the general public interested in the development of the city.

Cumins said the pandemic has increased demand for these solutions, particularly from construction clients, though the company declined to share specific metrics.

“It’s kind of important today, during the days of Covid, because what construction customers want to do is add more and more remote employees. The fewer people they can actually bring to the job site, the safer the job site is,” Rich Humphrey, VP of product management at Bentley Systems, told Emerging Tech Brew. “Now they will visually monitor the job site from their home, in this virtual digital-twin environment.”

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