Digital Twins – Myth or Reality?

There’s much talk about Digital Twin at the moment, but what is it really?  And can it actually help your business?  Now, more than ever, we’re looking for ways to improve our productivity, so can the Digital Twin be the solution we’re looking for to achieve that?

The Digital Twin – Taking Control Without the Risk

An easy way to explain the Digital Twin it is to think of a flight simulator. Instead of a real-life aircraft, you’ve got a replica, where a trainee pilot has the opportunity to learn and test how to use all of the equipment – and without destroying a 737 in the process. Even experienced pilots use it to sharpen their skills and practice handling difficult situations. If they run into difficulty, they can push the reset button quickly and start again – all without any risk. I once watched simulator being thrown about by an engineer (I hope they never get into a real aircraft) and the barrel roll and landing without undercarriage surely challenged the equipment but he got out unscathed. And this is what having a digital twin realistically means for your business. It’s a tool that enables you to replicate processes and test out new concepts, in your business in a safe environment.

Digital Twin – Myth or Reality?

Why Now?

Having a digital twin is simple concept that’s great to apply to any business. It’s a chance to try things out. Look at different approaches. All without resulting in significant challenges to your organisation. Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, there are so many issues that are affecting businesses worldwide. And the customer experience is more important than ever. Digital loyalty to brands is certainly being challenged right now. Customers want their products fast, and in a consumer environment, if businesses can’t keep up with their customers’ needs, they’ll quickly go elsewhere; meaning that market share soon will rapidly disappear. Consequently, the organisations that are able to get their products and ideas to market quicker are the ones that will be more successful. Its less about coming up with good ideas and a business strategy and much more about your ability to translate this strategy into action, fast and a lower risk.

Sharing is Caring

So how do you get your ideas shared quickly across your organisation? This is where having a digital twin and making a replica of your business can make a massive difference between success and failure. In the past, we’ve had the time to install new business models, but this is no longer the case. Many of the older techniques, that were traditionally effective, just simply won’t have the same results in the new world. To meet the needs of our customers, we need to react faster, act more dynamically, and be more customer-centric. Supply chains are being disrupted. Brexit’s effects are being seen on supply. Plus, with the pandemic’s new remote workforce, there needs to be a way of understanding how end-to-end activity will work with colleagues.

Talking Processes and Tools

Go to any conference, well in a non-COVID situation anyhow, and you’ll find so many tools and approaches to digitalise the process of process management – helping you create the Digital Twin of your business. Having a set of procedures in Word or Visio is no longer sufficient. There needs to be a central repository which is easily accessible from all areas of your organisation, and that can also be constantly updated. Then simulation tools to test procedures; see how they work and what impact they’ll have on cost and time for your organisation. Having a digital twin means that you can easily simulate and analyse different scenarios. Use process mining to understand what is happening in reality or task mining tools for more detailed discovery creating, replicas of detailed operating scripts for potential automation. Work-flow tools describe the interaction between functions and can be translated into new ways of more interactive working. There are also a plethora of emerging low-code tools to generate more automation directly from the models in your digital twin. All of these (and there are many more) help you put tools in place which create elements of your Digital Twin to trial the best way to work; mirroring your organisation safely.

It’s Not Worth Doing if it’s Not Done Properly

There’s no doubt that putting this into action is not a job to be dealt with lightly. It takes a huge effort to put this in place and keep it maintained. All procedures need to be documented and to the right level of detail. And if you’re putting in such a vast amount of time and effort, you need to make sure it’s done properly. Every element of detail that you capture in the Digital Twin needs to be captured and then maintained. Vast amounts of unnecessary detail translate into unnecessary maintenance or, even worse, the information is not kept current and thus looses its relevance and the investment is wasted. It’s essential that you make sure that the processes you choose are cost justifiable and that a balanced approach is taken to make it work. Realistically, you can’t create a digital copy of everything, and some processes you may choose not to copy. You’ll need to decide how much detail is required to be captured so that you can be most effective.

Action Planning

So where do you start? It’s essential that you don’t think of your problem as an engineer but as an end user. All content should be built around well considered usage scenarios. What will you use your digital twin for? You’ll need to make sure that you build it so that it’s relevant for its usage. There needs to be a good balance of information and the benefit that will be achieved. Make sure you have a vision of what your parallel world will look like. Build a continual picture of your organisation in the form of a skeleton, and slowly add the ‘muscles and limbs’ on the back of specific improvement initiatives – such as fixing your supply chain or improving the digitalisation of your customer experience. All done while using the level of detail that’s necessary. This way you’ll effectively create a digital twin of your organisation that’s appropriate for your actual needs. However each initiative, rather than being done independently, should always be adding substance to your Twin.

Meeting Standards and Not Complete Design

When you’re looking at the best tools for the job, it’s not possible to design the complete Digital Twin that meets all your future business needs and usage scenarios. It’s more important that you recognise the technology standards adopted by most vendors ensuring that they can interact with each other. You should be able to build in some resilience through a plug-and-play ability as your needs and the tools develop. Make sure you don’t spend too much time assessing the tools, as tools can change incredibly quickly. By the time you get to implement parts of the infrastructure the tool and vendor environment will more than likely have changed. It’s more important to create a high level blueprint and then build the core infrastructure and then adapt it as your business needs dictate.

Starting Your Digital Twin Journey

Overall, digital twins are both a myth and reality. A complete twin of every detailed element of the business is typically just not justified (a myth). However, at the right level of detail it is of significant benefit and essebtial (a reality). If you’re planning on discovering their benefits, you need to be absolutely clear on what your organisation needs and is actually able to implement. So, can it happen? Yes, in a staged and practical, outcome-oriented manner. And wherever you are on your process improvement journey, don’t go too crazy. Make your digital twin’s goals realistic and appropriate for your company’s needs.

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Liam O'Neill
Liam O'Neill
4 months ago

Great article Peter