What is a digital twin?
Perhaps IBM has the best and simplest definition of a digital twin: it’s a dynamic, up-to-date representation of a physical object or system.
Digital twin technology is becoming pervasive as engineers discover more ways to use them. They fall into one of two categories: those meant to interface with machines, and those meant to interface with people.
Use cases for people are everywhere. Everything from choosing an airline or concert seat, to designing custom products use digital twins. The number of applications is only growing, and if you’re a developer, sooner or later you’ll probably have to build an application that calls for a digital twin.
When do you need a digital twin?
Whether you need a digital twin really comes down to one thing: user value. Does creating one create enough value for the end user to justify creating it? In this case, an end user can be a consumer purchasing a ticket or a manufacturer building a component or system.
Of course, determining end-user value is not always straightforward, because digital twins have the capacity to change culture or user experience. So if you value digital twin development based only on its financial return on investment (ROI), you may miss the bigger picture. Digital twins have the potential to fundamentally change the way people interact with technology, and you need to take this into account when making the decision.
Hints that a digital twin might be needed:
- Solving the problem with traditional checklists or spreadsheets no longer works.
- The only way to get an idea across is with a visualization of the real thing.
- You’re working on a complex or novel idea that you want to present to a new set of customers, and there’s no history of doing the thing you want to help them to do.
What are some challenges of building a digital twin?
One of the biggest challenges to building a digital twin is that there’s rarely a third-party plug-in or library to use as a starting point. If you’re building a digital twin, it’s most likely going to be a bespoke design.
Another common challenge is finding the middle ground between the various stakeholders. On the one hand, the party you’re developing the digital twin for will tell you how they want to visualize it. On the other hand, end users may want to visualize it in a different way. It will be your job as a developer to make them all happy.
As a developer, you may need to tap into more skills than just coding. Digital twins frequently require multiple graphical and interactive layers. You will have to become comfortable with all of these design inputs. You are, in essence, building a product within a product.
When juggling all these challenges, if you get stuck and are not sure what to do, let user experience (UX) be your ultimate guide. Whatever results in the best UX is what you should shoot for.
What’s a big “gotcha” in building a digital twin?
There is a big “gotcha” you need to be aware of when embarking on building a digital twin: you must be sensitive to how close you’re trying to get the digital twin to look like the real thing. Otherwise, you can obsessively spend hundreds of hours getting infinitesimally more accurate for only incremental benefit. At some point you’ll have to draw the line and say, “This representation is good enough.” Once again, it’s a balancing act between technical hurdles, business needs, and end-user value.
Some final advice
Here are two last pieces of advice for you, before you embark on your journey to develop a digital twin.
- Start with a simple solution so you can iterate fast, rather than trying to get everything just right the first time.
- Don’t be afraid to explore a bespoke solution. It can be intimidating, but don’t let that deter you.