Stop talking about digital twins

Aside from general pandemic despair, recently Twitter has been awash with an ongoing stream of arguments; “is this a digital twin?”, “is that one?”, “a point cloud isn’t a digital twin”, “does a digital twin require a live data stream between the physical asset?”, “no Vendor X your software does not make digital twins”, “my digital twin is bigger than yours”. I paraphrase.

Whether something is a digital twin or not is a moot point. It’s a pointless argument. It might be a digital twin or a digital gorilla. It doesn’t make a difference. What is important is to understand how you are using data, digital models, sensors, relays and business models to deliver value via assets for stakeholders.

Digital twin is a concept, not a thing.

This blog contains only my observations and doesn’t reflect any official guidance published by anyone, but I think it needs saying. The ideas build on my previous blog about an Internet of Construction.

We’ve been here before with BIM. A client asks their supplier to “do BIM” without any further scope or requirements. Everyone laughs at the naivety of the request and notes what a silly client they are. Then the next client asks for “a BIM model”.

The boat with the opportunity to do things differently might have already sailed for digital twin. But maybe not.

The problem is the sheer scope for what could be considered a digital twin without considering how that cyber-physical thing interoperates with systems that can amplify or leverage its value.

Instead, we should think about Digital Twin Technologies. These are the foundations that make a physical or digital object interoperable with other digital or physical objects.

The World Wide Web Consortium, W3C, and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) don’t waste their time trying to define whether something website or a web app, instead they put extraordinary efforts into describing how a piece of technology should behave if it is to exist on the web or internet.

Organisations like the National Digital Twin Programme within the CDBB should (and are) position themselves as open standards bodies defining the requirements and behaviours for technologies. Unfortunately, what is heard is “you’ve gotta get yourself one of these digital twins”.

What is needed is a way that buyers can say “I need a thing that delivers this functionality and value. And because I don’t want to restrict future opportunities, it needs to be capable of plugging into our enterprise architecture, e.g. by using digital twin technologies.”

This would blow the doors open on what could be considered a digital twin, but also vastly increase the opportunities for innovation and extra value generation.

We will get new startups based on the premise of using digital twin technologies to do x. Because the innovation focus is on the technologies not the twins themselves the outputs from the efforts are much more scalable across the industry. But it wouldn’t matter if a company only made a widget or a piece of software, if it can interoperate using a common protocol there’s value to be had.

Digital Twin Technologies enable the interoperability of systems and components and are:

  • open source
  • defined in terms of their functionality and behaviour
  • specific, testable and certifiable

This would allow manufacturers and vendors to promote their products as using digital twin technologies and buyers to validate their claims. Systems integrators will build scalable systems that integrate physical and digital components, modules and systems to be configured, reconfigured for a purpose without shutting out the possibility of reconfiguration.

This by no means reduces the amount of work required by initiatives like the National Digital Twin programme, but gives clarity of message on the outputs of the work. It means that marketers can’t use smoke screen or buzzwords to sell solutions. Instead it will force them to focus on outputs and benefits, demonstrating compatibility with other Digital Twin Technology-enabled systems.

The power and transformation of the web is that it is based on system interoperability through a small number of key standards which allow thousands of other standards to be developed for specific use-cases by any stakeholder. Those successful standards get traction, those that don’t fall by the wayside. These technologies build on each other so that building a website or desktop app using frameworks that give confidences about security and performance, but can ultimately serve a vast range of functionality and outcomes all based on web technologies.

The concept of digital twin could change the world. But if we allow the current marketing nonsense too much airtime industry will move on before Digital Twin Technologies gain enough traction for take off.

“Cute li’l fella wanna be a hero!” by Wasfi Akab is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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