Digital twins – a new trend in mass customization enabled by IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) – aka Industry 4.0 – brings concepts which have been known for quite some time in the high-tech investment goods sector (e.g., aeronautics, process manufacturing) to a more diverse marketplace. The digitization of production processes and the Internet of Things, and the possibility to incorporate a multitude of sensors – and in some cases also actuators – into consumer products drive a trend to make use of these consumer products as services and only pay for the use.

Digital twins are basically digital copies of physical assets, including all their modeled characteristics, behaviors in time and degrees of freedom. This may also include the effects of aging as well as the effects of a usage for different purposes over time. A starting point for a digital twin is a 3-D modeling of a physical object. The digital twin gets its life from sensor data generated by sensors within the physical object and delivered to data objects relating to the 3-D model of the physical object.

Concepts like this as well as continuous engineering – which is strongly linked to the concept of digital twins – were highlighted during the recent opening of the Watson IoT center of IBM in Munich. The ability to include sensors at close to no cost in any consumer product as well as in almost any investment good, combined with a communication-friendly environment – i.e., WLAN or long-range mobile networks always available – makes it possible to generate a continuous stream of data from the physical object in the real world to the digital twin, bringing it to life. The digital twin concept becomes applicable to a large range of different vertical industries, such as buildings, trains, automotive, maintenance of any kind, as well as a large variety of consumer goods. It could be the razor ordering new blades if the old ones are out, running shoes signaling that they need replacement, electric tooth brushes delivering information about the health of the brushed teeth, cars making their own appointments for maintenance, and so on. The possibilities are nearly unlimited.

However, these new options for the usage and billing of new products have significant implications on the entire product lifecycle. Using the concept of digital twins, an electronic copy of the real, physical product is permanently available to manufacturers. They can permanently apply analytics to the received live data stream as well as charge for the usage only. This concept also has implications for the design process of products which may only be offered as services, for marketing and sales, as well as for services/ maintenance and product upgrades. Manufacturers need to integrate the digital nervous systems – i.e., the sensors – into the products and also provide electronic communication capabilities with other products. This way the classic machine manufacturer becomes a link in an information supply chain that may be understood as the equivalent of the product supply chain. However, whereas the product supply chain typically starts with raw materials and ends with the consumer, the information supply chain starts with the consumer buying a product – or a related service – that influences the production process, generates a digital twin and accompanies the developing product along the product supply chain back to the customer. From there, the information supply chain restarts by generating usage data that is transmitted back to the manufacturer, where the information supply chain delivers this data to the digital twins. This way, manufacturers always stay informed about the usage and the level of wear of their products. The ability to constantly analyze this data – eventually also using cognitive services – may have a series of effects: better marketing options, a much closer relationship with the customer and, most likely, a better user experience and customer satisfaction.

However, these benefits may not come overnight. Manufacturers have to understand the opportunities hidden behind buzzwords like digitization, IoT/Industry 4.0 and Internet of Things. They need to transform themselves from product manufacturing entities into companies thinking in terms of services and incorporating the digital twin concept into the offerings. For this purpose, CXP Group‘s Innovation Register may be a good executive starting point. On the other hand, enterprises may want to use co-location spaces like the Watson IoT center of IBM in Munich in order to develop prototypes and gain access to experts with a track record in a variety of IoT projects.

Bottom line: The concept of the digital twin in the mass market opens completely new options for product manufacturers through redefining their products as services. However, they also need to invest in the willingness to change, skills and a related digital infrastructure that enables the transformation of the enterprise from one-way production to a strong two-way relationship with its customers.