08-10-2018 | By Nnamdi Anyadike

The use of simulation tools, ‘digital twins’, in production is fast growing and will soon become an integral part of the Smart Factory and the Internet of Things (IoT). Digital twins are digital copies of physical assets including all their modelled characteristics and behaviours. They integrate technologies such as machine learning, M2M, artificial intelligence (AI), predictive analytics, and sensor telemetry to create a detailed 3D image of a real object, such as robots or machines.

The market is forecast to grow at a CAGR of 32.73%, during the period 2017-2021, and achieve a valuation of $13.9 billion. In a 2018 survey conducted by Gartner's IT analysis and market research institute, forty-eight percent of companies that use IoT applications said they already use digital twins or are planning to do so. The research based management consulting firm, TechSci Research, is also forecasting strong growth in the market for digital twins. The leading players include: General Electric (GE), IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, PTC, Ansys, Dassault Systèmes, Siemens, Bosch Software Innovation and SAP.

In maintenance and servicing, digital twins offer new possibilities by reducing downtimes and the associated loss of production. Data can be encrypted in a cloud thereby enabling service technicians to easily access machine information and identify and solve problems remotely. The digital image allows for all processes to be displayed on the computer, a tablet or even on virtual reality glasses. However while the maintenance and servicing role is increasingly becoming reality, in the future digital twins will be involved throughout the production life cycle. They will be engaged in the development phase and then onto the operation and adaptation of the machines to new requirements.

At trade events, such as Siemens ‘PLM Connection’ this June in Phoenix, Arizona and FachPack, the European trade fair for packaging, processes and technology held in Nuremberg this September, a number of companies showcased their most recent developments. Siemens has what it describes as a comprehensive concept of the digital twin. And it claims to be the only company that offers this holistic approach.

“Our holistic approach for creating Digital Twins offers tangible benefits,” claims the company. “You can substantially reduce the number of prototypes you need, predict the performance of the production unit and the products themselves, and ensure you produce what your customers expect,” it adds. Siemens’ Digital Enterprise Suite enables manufacturing companies to integrate and digitalise their business processes, while ‘MindSphere’, the cloud-based, open IoT operating system, creates a link to the IoT.

Meanwhile, digital twins could also be about to revolutionise healthcare. They form part of a growth in the global medical imaging analytics software market that research firm Frost & Sullivan expects to jump to $4.3 billion by 2025, from $2.4 billion in 2016. Siemens Healthineers has developed a digital heart twin to help doctors make more precise diagnoses that could potentially save healthcare systems money by predicting outcomes and thereby avoiding unnecessary surgery.

The 3D digital heart twin, which mimics the electrical and physical properties of the cells in a heart, is now being trialled on a patient at Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany. Siemens Healthineers was spun off from its German parent Siemens in March and is now in the vanguard of medical imaging equipment suppliers, thanks to a slew of new products.

However, it is not alone in looking to develop digital twins for the healthcare market. Philips and GE Healthcare as well as the tech giants, Google and Alibaba are looking to use big data to grab a slice of healthcare spending. Google has developed a suite of AI tools. These include algorithms that can analyse medical images to diagnose eye disease, or sift through digital records to predict the likelihood of death. And Alibaba is working on AI-assisted diagnosis tools to help analyze images such as CT scans and MRIs.

GE and Philips are both working on versions of digital heart twins. Philips sells an AI-enabled heart model that is capable of turning 2D ultrasound images into data. Meanwhile, in May 2015 the French software firm Dassault Systemes launched the first commercial ‘Living Heart’ model, though it is only currently available for research.

The future is certainly looking rosy. As Benjamin Meder, a cardiologist at Heidelberg University Hospital who is testing the Siemens Healthineers' software told Reuters, "Imagine that in the future, we have a patient with all their organ functions, all their cellular functions, and we are able to simulate this complexity. We would be able to predict weeks or months in advance which patients will get ill, how a particular patient will react to a certain therapy, which patients will benefit the most. That could revolutionise medicine.”


Read more electronics news related to advancements in IoT and smart tech: ‘Smart factory’ – the key to Industrial Revolution 4.0


By Nnamdi Anyadike

I have 30 years experience as a freelance business, economy and industry journalist, concentrating on the oil, gas and renewable energy, telecommunications and IT sectors. I have authored a number of well received in-depth market intelligence reports. And I have also spoken at conferences.