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A key aspect of the Internet of Things, digital twins are becoming more cost-effective, and increasingly, more common in many industries.

A digital twin is a virtual replica of a product, process or service, located in a computer system. It is used to design a widget, for example, test it, simulate the process of making it, and program production equipment. Everything can be fine-tuned prior to being transferred to the physical factory, where manufacturing is carried out. This bridge between the virtual and physical worlds allows manufacturers to analyse data and monitor systems in order to avoid problems before they occur, prevent downtime, identify opportunities, and plan future design iterations.

The digital twin was named one of Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2017. The concept is not new, however: It can be traced back to NASA in the early days of space travel. What is new is the increasingly widespread adoption of digital twins across a range of industries as part of the growing industrial Internet of Things (IoT).

“Digital twins are becoming a business imperative, covering the entire lifecycle of an asset or process and forming the foundation for connected products and services. Companies that fail to respond will be left behind,” said Thomas Kaiser, Senior Vice President of IoT at SAP.

These systems combine a number of technologies and disciplines – computer-aided design, engineering, simulation, process control and product lifecycle management, among others. Some are gaining artificial intelligence and virtual-reality capabilities as well. Twins are expected to become even more responsive as products are fitted with more advanced sensors for relaying data.

Twinning offers the opportunity to bring products to market faster, at a lower cost, according to The Economist. This is because it eliminates much of the cost and time, as well as the risk, of making changes to products or processes. Digital twins allow endless design iterations, which can be tried and tested in the virtual world, with no need to stop the production line, says Jan Mrosik, Chief Executive of Siemens’s Digital Factory Division. Twins can also be used to remotely monitor products and provide after sales service. “It is a digital twin of the entire value chain,” says Mrosik.

Siemens and a growing number of other companies, including its American rival General Electric, are equipping their factories with digital twins. Both companies also sell digital twin software. French firm Dassault Systèmes is a specialist in this area. Customers span a growing list of industries, from aerospace and defence to automotive, energy, heavy machinery, consumer products and pharmaceuticals.