What is a digital twin and how does it work?

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a real-world process, object or entity.

It is comprised of the following three elements:

  • a physical entity in real space;
  • the digital twin in software form; and
  • data that links the first two elements together.

A digital twin functions as a proxy for the current state of the thing it represents. It also is unique to the thing represented, not simply generic to the category. Moreover, the digital twins of two seemingly identical products will not usually be identical.

While many digital twins have a 2D or 3D computer-aided design (CAD) image associated with them, visual representation is not a prerequisite. The digital representation, or digital model, could consist of a database, a set of equations or a spreadsheet.

The data link, often but not necessarily two-way, is what differentiates digital twins from similar concepts. This link makes it possible for users to investigate the state of the object or process by querying the data, and for actions communicated through the digital twin to take effect in its physical counterpart.

The Digital Twin Consortium, an industry association working to build the market and recommend standards, adds an important phrase to the basic definition: “synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity.”

These aspects refer to three key aspects of the technology.

  • Synchronization is about making sure the digital twin and the represented entity mirror each other as closely as possible.
  • The frequency, or speed, at which data gets updated in a digital twin can vary enormously, from seconds to weeks to on demand, depending on the purpose.
  • Fidelity is the degree of precision and accuracy of the virtual representation and the synchronization mechanism.

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