February 26, 2024

What is a Digital Twin - revisiting the definition

What is a Digital Twin - a modern take on the digital twin definition.

A digital twin is a high-fidelity representation of a real-world thing which looks like, behaves like, and is connected to the real world for decision making. You may have heard me make that statement before, and it’s a very generally accepted view. I agree with McKinsey, it’s a true definition. But defining a digital twin in that way leaves a lot to be desired.  

It’s kind of like defining art as “an artefact or act that conveys meaning or emotion”. Technically correct but something is missing. Yes, I know I just equated digital twins to an art form but please hear me out! 

This is because a digital twin (just like art) is not simply a lifeless artefact that stands independent of the human experience. Art is a process through which an artist communicates meaning and emotion to an observer. Sometimes the observer is the artist themselves.  
In much the same way, a digital twin is a process through which an expert conveys their expertise for learning by a decision maker.  
For example, in BEYON drive I have built a digital twin which uses 3D models connected to work instructions as well as metadata about valve positions and LOTO status to help maintenance teams streamline pump maintenance processes, reducing downtime and improving OEE.  

Continuing with our art analogy, the mediums through which you engage in the process of building your twin will be visual such as reality capture information, 3D BIM models, diagrams and the like, it will be through modelling and simulation for analysing, predicting, and optimising outcomes, it will be data connectivity through to databases APIs, or IoT Sensors. This will result in some very visually compelling systems such as those described by Deloitte here.  

But it’s more than just a splash of colour on a page. As you build your digital twin, it’s important to keep the result in mind: to consider your audience. What biases do they bring to the table? What are their pain points? What problems are they trying to solve and what do you think they will gain from using the expertise you are building for them in your twin?  

The process doesn’t stop with the act of creation. On the contrary, your audience (the decision makers) are active participants in process because the only way they are going to benefit from your expertise is through learning, and that learning requires they actively experience something. They extract meaning from the twin (sometimes meaning you didn’t even intend) by actively engaging with the content you create.  

For example, BEYON Direct can be configured to allow decision makers to review their portfolio of assets for carbon impact, embedding decades of expertise in sustainability into easy to understand visualisations and interactive tools.  
A Digital Twin is a process through which you collaboratively share expertise with a decision maker to inform their decision. The process is mediated by this “digital” stuff and that digital stuff is worth exploring further.  

That digital stuff, that canvas you are working with is known as a digital twin platform. There are many different canvasses out there: some big, some small. Some very constrained, only slowing you the smallest amount of flexibility in communicating your vision, some so flexible and unconstrained that the blank canvas itself can be overwhelmingly daunting when you’re just starting out.  
Choosing the right canvas to convey your expertise is an important step in your process.  

To do this, start with the end in mind, consider your audience (your decision maker) what kind of environment are they in? Will the system need to work on a tablet or is a desktop computer OK? Will they be comfortable zooming around a 3D model or will you need something a little more focused to keep them on track? Will they be exploring a lot of different ideas simultaneously or do you have a clear idea of the kinds of answers you want them to extract, the story you want to tell? 

Some of the biggest challenges with digital twin implementations are the same as the challenges with art. Without an audience to convey meaning to, can art be said to exist at all?In much the same way, if you build a fancy twin that no one is able to use or gain learning and insight from, have you even been able to achieve a digital twin at all? 

...if you build a fancy twin that no one is able to use or gain learning and insight from, have you even been able to achieve a digital twin at all?

To overcome this challenge, select your platform and iterate, get feedback. This is not a linear process, this is an iterative and creative process. Share your creation with anyone who will listen but remember your target audience, remember their pain points and remember the decisions you want to support them in.  

Above all, remember that the true value in the twin doesn’t come from the reality capture or the IoT sensors or the incredibly sophisticated algorithm you have identified to pull them all together. The true value comes from you and your expertise, carefully woven into a complex story in the twin, allowing you to communicate that, and your audience to learn.  

Why learn? Because the path to better decision making is learning, the best way to learn is through experience and the best digital technology I am aware of for creating such an experience is a digital twin.  

Stephen Witherden

Stephen Witherden 
CTO & Co-founder 
BEYON Digital Twin 
+61 404 199123