Are you familiar with the concept of the twin paradox? In physics, the twin paradox is a thought experiment in which one twin stays on Earth while the other travels in a spaceship at a high speed for a period of time. According to the special theory of relativity, the second twin will return home measurably younger than the first.
In a similar way, the concept of the digital twin can accelerate your business and breathe new life into your products and services.
But the digital twin isn’t just a thought experiment. Gartner lists digital twins as a Top 10 strategic trend for 2017. It’s part of a broader digital transformation on which IDC says companies will invest $2.1 trillion a year by 2019.
Already, smart companies are using digital twins to better understand operations, get closer to customers, and transform their business.
Connecting real and virtual
A digital twin is a virtual representation of a real-world product or service. That could be anything from a toaster to industrial machinery to complex processes. The virtual representation combines three types of information: business data, contextual data, and sensor data.
Business data covers information such as customer name, location, and service-level agreements. Contextual data includes details such as ambient temperature, humidity, and weather events. Sensor data involves things like machine speed, operating temperature, and vibration.
Sensor data is key because, while companies have been using digital twins for years, it’s only with the Internet of Things (IoT) that they’ve become cost-effective. Gartner predicts that 6.4 billion things will be connected this year, a 30% jump over 2015. By 2020, at least half of all new business processes will incorporate IoT – transforming live data into new value.
Drilling down on digital twins
How does a digital twin work? Let’s say you manufacture industrial drills. A digital twin can help you understand how customers use your drill. The goal is to continuously improve the product to increase customer satisfaction and identify opportunities for new products and services.
For example, you might discover that your drill malfunctions in certain situations. That can enable you to improve product design. Or it can let you help customers modify the way they use the drill to avoid problems.
Or, you might discover that customers use your drill not only to make holes but also to cut materials. That might lead you to develop a new product that’s purpose-built for cutting.
Or, maybe you discover that while customers want holes made, they don’t necessarily want to purchase and operate a drill. So rather than sell drills, you might offer a hole-drilling service. In other words, instead of charging customers for machinery they operate, you charge them for holes drilled by machinery you operate for them. Some SAP customers have been quite successful in making this kind of leap from products to services.
Digital twins across industries
Digital twins aren’t just for manufacturers. Insurers can apply digital twins in offerings like usage-based car insurance. Retailers can track how customers navigate the store and interact with products on the shelves. Cities can model areas for things like smart lighting. Ports can monitor weather, shipping traffic, containers, and trains and trucks entering and leaving.
Digital twins cover the entire lifecycle of an asset or process. In fact, they can form a foundation for an end-to-end, closed-loop value chain for smart, connected products and services, from design to production, from deployment to continuous improvement.
The promise of continuous improvement is why it’s increasingly important to integrate digital technologies into all products. As you leverage your digital twin to identify opportunities for new or better features, you can implement those improvements quickly and cost-effectively through firmware updates.
Implementing digital twins involves four steps:
- Integrate smart components such as sensors, software, computing power, or data storage into new or existing products.
- Connect the product to a central location where you can capture sensor data and enrich that sensor data with business and contextual data.
- Analyze that data on an ongoing basis to identify opportunities for product improvements, new products, or even new business models.
- Leverage these digital insights to transform your company — for example, by reducing costs through proactive avoidance of business interruptions, or by creating new business opportunities.
Of course, while those steps are easy to list, they can require significant effort to achieve. But digital twins are becoming a business imperative. Companies that fail to respond will be left behind. Those that embrace digital twins have the opportunity to better understand customer needs, continuously improve their products and services, and even identify new business models that give them competitive advantage.
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