Last week Dell, Microsoft, property developer Lendlease, and engineering software company Ansys announced they were part of a new consortium formed to build standards for the creation and use of digital twins. The group, called the Digital Twin Consortium, is worth looking into as it will allow us to evaluate what these companies are trying to achieve and how it could expand our use of connected technology.
A digital twin is simply a digital replica of an object. The concept was popularized by NASA after the Apollo 13 disaster, and ever since, companies in manufacturing, Formula One racing, and aerospace have used digital twins to test designs. But with more sensors, cheaper computing power, and the growth of the internet of things, companies want to take digital twins much further.
For example, Microsoft has been creating digital twins of newly constructed buildings on its campus, says Sam George, corporate vice president of Azure IoT at Microsoft. The goal is to help facilities and security employees get a picture of how the campus is used and what’s happening in various places in the building. Sensors in the rooms, mapped to a digital twin, can show what conference rooms are occupied and other daily usage patterns throughout the buildings. They can also show when HVAC systems or others need maintenance.
Richard Soley, who is the executive director of the new consortium and chairman and CEO of the Object Management Group, which also runs the Industrial Internet Consortium, says that a digital twin of a building can help non-corporate entities as well. For example, cities or public safety officers could know in almost real-time which companies are in a building and what might be stored there. He even believes that well-done digital twins can offer specific, tangible information, such as how long it might take to evacuate a particular building.
And while there are existing standards in architecture, such as the Building Information Management (BIM) standard, a digital twin offers more data and a continuously updated picture of a building compared to BIM. Because it’s primarily used during the design phase, BIM is not adhered to by all building design software companies.
The consortium would like to create standard ontologies to define what a building’s digital twin should contain as well as to ensure that data created in one piece of software can be shared among other software that abides by those ontologies. The goal is to make it easy to both create digital twins for new and existing infrastructure as well as manage the changes that infrastructure undergoes without getting locked into one piece of software.
Buildings aren’t the only area the Digital Twin Consortium is hoping to standardize. The group will create standards for four vertical use cases: infrastructure (think buildings), aerospace, manufacturing, and natural resources (thinking mining). Soley believes that creating interoperable and portable standards will help companies save money on their initial designs, enable widespread predictive maintenance, and even improve the overall quality of designs because those designs will be easier to share widely.
If we want to bring digital twins outside of the confines of manufacturing and expand their concept and use throughout other industries, a standard approach makes sense. What if organizations can create digital twins of their physical offices or retail stores to help see how people move around in order to promote social distancing? What if cities had digital twins of airports on hand so they could figure out how to improve foot traffic flow for people trying to stay six feet apart?
The possibilities are exciting. Let’s see if this consortium can make it happen.