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What is a digital twin?

Author: Kevin Reeves, director for internet of things & digital twin

UK infrastructure, like many industries, is going through a period of significant transformation with digital technologies underpinning much of this change. ‘Digital Twin’ in particular is emerging as a core capability that will underpin UK infrastructure as digital transformation continues to evolve.

Being a relatively new concept in the infrastructure sectors, the most common question I get asked is ‘what is a digital twin?’

A tough question to answer but at Costain we believe the best approach to Digital Twin evolution is to help our clients define what it means to them.

However, the more people I speak too, the greater my belief that there is a better question: ‘What could a Digital Twin be?’

The real beauty of Digital Twin is that the market is emerging, the ‘what’ is still being explored by those who will own and operate them, predominately owner/operators of UK infrastructure assets.

You can, of course, speak to many organisations who can articulate a vision for Digital Twin that is tailored to their goods and services, and in my experience, these are generally valid examples.

Here are a few examples:

  • An engineering provider with a vision of lifecycle building information modelling, enabling clients to adjust parameters and assess the impact of real world behaviours in a digital rehearsal for example, perhaps even with real time inputs, will use Digital Twin to understand how an asset will perform over its whole life.
  • Real time operational technology providers, who can demonstrate how real time systems, old and new, can be integrated with business systems to run different scenarios may define Digital Twin as allowing clients to integrate or simulate real world feedback into risk based planning, for example, to see how changing components within a system might affect overall risk profiles.
  • A contractor, might use Digital Twin to explain how digital production management can evolve design data through the build process, to ensure it is ready for use in operational phases of the asset.
  • And finally, an IT provider might define Digital Twin as being able to portray a vision of enterprise systems, such as workforce management, being linked to real time information from sensors, leveraging internet of things capability. This approach enables owner/operators to prioritise scheduling and optimise maintenance budgets.

All of the above are great examples of Digital Twin capabilities when considering the Gemini Principles definition ‘a realistic digital representation of assets, processes or systems in the built or natural environment’. What excites me most, is what would happen if we considered integrating all these capabilities to create a fully integrated enterprise, to include supply chains and perhaps even citizens?

Think of what could be achieved, a design change could be tested against real time data in a simulation to assess how it performs in operational life, not only that the link to enterprise systems would mean the impact on cost, risk, supply chain and other business metrics could be tested. The possibilities are quite literally endless. Importantly many businesses already have the component pieces, they are however isolated rather than being integrated.

Taking this very broad, all-encompassing view, is tough for businesses to digest as they identify likely investment needs, work through value creation and understand risks. This is difficult when thinking about things on such a grand scale. This is why a good first step might be to roadmap what a Digital Twin could be for your organisation, set a high-level vision and work backwards to prioritise what to do now, in the mid and long term to help you get there. A roadmap should not be considered a fixed plan and must evolve with your business as it changes, however it provides direction and initial guidance on where to focus investments and create early value.

By taking this approach, integrated enterprises as set out in the ICE Project 13 model, will not constrain themselves by worrying too much about ‘what is a Digital Twin’, and can instead focus on what Digital Twin could be. This approach is being promoted by the water sector regulator OFWAT, termed ‘systems thinking’. Systems thinking encourages a big picture mindset, identifying the pieces of the puzzle to create that big enterprise picture and approaching each piece of the puzzle in a structured way, towards a common goal. For more information on systems thinking, check out the following article by Costain’s Jeremy Dick, where he explains the relationship between systems thinking and systems engineering.

The next big step from an integrated enterprise is thinking about federating information across multiple organisations to create a National Digital Twin, a concept that is taking hold across the globe. It is this global opportunity that we should all be excited about, through collaboration between government, academia and industry the UK can be a world leader in the evolution of the digital economy.

To achieve this, we need to think big, be prepared to fail, not hold back and work together to evolve UK infrastructure to be a world leading centre of excellence.

This is without doubt, the most exciting time for UK infrastructure since the first industrial revolution, I for one cannot wait to see the future unfold for the benefit of UK citizens.


This article was created for the ICE.