VentureBeat kicked off its 2021 digital twins coverage with Accenture’s prediction that digital twins would be a top trend for the year. Meanwhile, other consultancies and systems integration leaders expanded their respective digital twins’ practices to improve product development, manufacturing, and supply chains. Lessons from these early implementations are helping to shape best practices that will allow more enterprises to succeed in 2022.
Digital twin capabilities are infused into other tools for product design, engineering, construction, manufacturing, and supply chain management rather than sold as individual tools. Enterprises face numerous challenges around weaving together a mix of data architecture, knowledge graphs, processes, and cultures required to get the most from digital twin implementations. Here are 22 ways that advances in these tools and new uncertainties in the world economy are likely to play out in 2022 across core capabilities, medicine, construction, and sustainability.
Digital Twin Capabilities
1. Cloud providers expand digital twin support
All the major cloud providers rolled out significant digital twin capabilities in 2021. Microsoft revealed a digital twin ontology for construction and building management. Google launched a digital twin service for logistics and manufacturing. AWS launched IoT TwinMaker and FleetWise to simplify digital twins of factories, industrial equipment, and vehicle fleets. Nvidia launched a metaverse for engineers as a subscription service across Nvidia’s partner network. In 2022, all three are likely to learn from early adopters to improve these offerings with support for more kinds of twins, better integration capabilities, and enhanced user experiences.
2. Digital twin leaders build new onramps
Leading digital twin pioneers are likely to expand support for and integration with these emerging cloud offerings. In the PLM space this includes Siemens, PTC, and Dassault Systèmes. In architecture and construction, this includes Autodesk and Bentley. Last year, Bentley enhanced integration with Microsoft’s Azure Digital Twins platform and the Nvidia Omniverse ecosystem. Over the next year, digital twin leaders are likely to shift from running existing tools on top of IaaS infrastructure towards native PaaS offerings that reduce barriers for enterprises. Leading manufacturers like Volkswagen are already starting to collaborate with cloud providers on a new generation of industrial cloud services. These new cloud-native services will help enterprises build up their digital twin infrastructure regardless of which cloud platform they choose.
3. Simplifying the interface of things
Most digital twin efforts focus on the physical aspects of things in the real world, such as how they are built and how they will respond to the physical environment. New digital twin APIs provide standard ways to communicate with and control equipment made by different manufacturers. Mapped recently launched one such commercial service on top of the open-source Brick Schema for describing physical, logical, and virtual assets. Zyter partnered with Qualcomm’s Smart Cities Consortium to standardize interfaces for lighting, construction safety, clinical data management, and remote patient monitoring. In 2022, developers, startups, and established enterprises will find new ways to craft new user experiences, improve efficiency, and generate revenues that take advantage of a better interface of things.
4. Data interop helps grow digital twin ecosystem
Early digital twin designs focused on individual digital twins. The Digital Twins Consortium’s interoperability standards will make it easier to compose larger-scale digital twin assemblies from a library of designs. Engineers and systems designers will spend more time designing applications from pre-tested components and less time figuring out how to integrate the applications. This will accelerate efforts to reuse digital twins components across multiple designs in the same way that open-source software has accelerated software development in domains such as supply chains, smart cities, manufacturing, construction, power grids, and water infrastructure.
5. Digital twins catalogs streamline design
Broader interoperability will help electronic, mechanical, and construction marketplaces create digital twin design catalogs to help designers evaluate tradeoffs between physical characteristics, lead time, and supply chain bottlenecks. Electronic and mechanical marketplaces are already surfacing interoperable CAD data, and construction catalogs are surfacing building information modeling components. Digital twins are the next step. These catalogs could also present digital twins of assemblies that combine raw components, manufacturing work, and engineering intellectual property that further simplifies design choices and compensates all participants. New NFT marketplaces could provide a way to automate compensation for design components assembled from multiple engineering firms.
6. Faster simulation drives new use cases
Simulation tool providers such as Altair, Ansys, Akselos, Cadence, Nnaisense, and Synopsis are discovering new simulation algorithms that provide performance gains in software at a much faster clip than Moore’s law. Hardware innovations from Nvidia and Cereberas can amplify these gains to enable a million-fold improvement in performance. This will allow engineers to explore more complex models reflecting electrical, quantum, and chemical effects in areas like battery design and better solar cells. Faster models will also lead to quicker and more actionable predictive maintenance models.
7. Process intelligence accelerates digital twins of organizations
The process mining market demonstrated triple-digit growth last year. These tools analyze ERP and CRM application logs to create a digital twin of business processes. Other task mining tools extend the reach of these tools using machine vision to watch over a user’s shoulder as they type and click their way across multiple apps. Process intelligence further extends these capabilities with sophisticated analytics and can automatically generate scripts to automate processes. Over the last year, major RPA vendors, including Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UiPath, enhanced their process intelligence capabilities. Gartner predicts that combining these capabilities will help drive the market for hyperautomation, which it expects to hit $596 billion in 2022.
8. Human digital twins cautiously embraced
Industries will cautiously embrace new tools for capturing data about human processes in manufacturing, logistics, warehouses, and stores. These digital twins can help identify opportunities to streamline processes, optimize schedules, and increase uptime. They can also help incorporate social-distancing factors into new and existing processes. Companies to watch include Drishti, Hitachi Vantara, and Tulip Interfaces. Caution is needed to protect against pushback against algorithmic management techniques that neglect employee needs. New approaches for crafting digital twins reflecting human well-being from companies like ProGlove could help.
9. Medical records consolidate to the cloud
VentureBeat covered 21 ways medical digital twins could improve medical outcomes, streamline healthcare processes, and create new medical services and products. Efforts to bridge gaps between medical processes, data, and applications will help realize these promises. One challenge is that electronic health care records data is often fragmented across multiple systems for insurance, general practitioners, and acute care providers. Bringing this data together is a prerequisite for better medical digital twins. In 2022 innovators will find a way to consolidate these silos to drive meaningful gains. Oracle’s planned acquisition of Cerner, the most prominent electronics health records vendor, suggests one general path for the industry. Microsoft is focusing on improving the record capture side of the process with its Nuance acquisition. Others will find ways to drive integration through the broader adoption of health care APIs.
10. Medical regulators drive medical digital twins
Medical regulators will pursue a more active role in driving the adoption of medical digital twins. The U.S. FDA recently worked with Siemens to demo drug production with a digital twin factory line. The FDA is also working with researchers to develop digital twins of drugs reflecting adverse outcomes with patient medical records to improve medical product safety surveillance. Regulators have struggled to weave wearable data into patient digital twins. Still, COVID and remote care concerns will help erode the barriers between consumer health tech and medical health data over the next year. 2022 will bring more regulatory support and guidance to improve drug and medical device development, production, and surveillance. In addition, enhanced digital twins of medical organizations will help overworked teams respond to COVID outbreaks while also treating other diseases.
11. Proteomics propels precision medicine
Precision medicine has made marginal improvements since the FDA reported that medication was deemed ineffective for 38-75% of patients with common diseases in 2013. Last year, Google AlphaFold open-sourced a way to automatically model the physical structure of proteins from their raw amino acid sequence. This could turbocharge efforts to build personalized digital twins reflecting the effects of drugs and other interventions at the level of proteins (proteomics) and genes. This promises to simplify efforts to build digital twins of people to improve precision medicine. It could also accelerate drug development and environmental research. Efforts like the Swedish Digital Twin Consortium will help combine these proteomic methods with systems-level approaches to construct disease models of unprecedented resolution. But this will require solving a wide range of technical, medical, ethical, and theoretical challenges.
12. Privacy-preserving twins gain traction
One long-term goal is for doctors to assess how similar patients respond to various treatments using a digital twin before prescribing a new treatment plan. The research for building these models has been hindered by strict privacy regulations and practices. Emerging new confidential computing techniques are already showing promise in crafting privacy-preserving medical digital twins to predict long COVID outcomes. Researchers will extend these techniques to other diseases in 2022. Additionally, synthetic data techniques will allow researchers to scale up the data from training these models for rare diseases.
13. Lab digital twins support experiments-as-code
Even when researchers believe they have exhaustively described an experiment they can repeat in their own lab, some details get missed in other labs. A new breed of robotic laboratories lets researchers use digital twins to manage experiments as code to allow precise replication in the next lab over or around the world. This kind of repeatability could allow medical research to see the same gains in automation, efficiency, and repeatability that IT saw with infrastructure as code. Pioneers include companies such as Strateos, 3Dispense, Opentrons, and Protedyne. Strateos claims this approach can reduce manual labor by 90% and increase productivity by 300%. Next up, similar approaches could transform the farming industry by automating experiments with small container plots to optimize yield, flavor, nutrition, and disease resistance.
14. Digital twins help Build Back Better and faster
The US Build Back Better initiative promises billions of dollars in direct construction investments. New reality capture services for surveying existing and potential infrastructure could help cities prioritize opportunities to qualify for more of this money. Examples include automatically generating digital twins of roads and bridges from firms such as ArcGIS, Where Technologies, Nexar, EyeVI Technologies, and RoadBotics. Construction digital twins will help track progress on new construction to optimize scheduling, catch missing details, and ensure safe construction practices. Companies to watch include Autodesk, Bentley, Matterport, and Agora.
15. Construction portfolio scale construction efficiently
The massive investment could also help galvanize investment in new tools for managing portfolios of digital twins at scale. For example, cities, states, and government agencies will increasingly adopt tools for prioritizing, measuring progress, and identifying bottlenecks across hundreds or thousands of individual projects. Cloud-based capital planning tools management tools from companies like Aurigo Software and Oracle will help streamline these large-scale processes.
16. More construction pros work from home
Construction has traditionally been a hands-on process. The combination of pandemic-related concerns and improved construction digital twins could accelerate the adoption of remote construction work. Some firms are finding that this is not only safer but also more efficient. Construction managers can track more sites without leaving the office. Helmet-mounted cameras, drones, and AI-powered capture processes can streamline documentation and validation processes. Down the road, city building inspectors could also automate inspections and reviews using a combination of AI and certified capture processes. Leading companies include AI Clearing, Buildots, Cupix, OpenSpace, and UrsaLeo.
17. Better energy and structural modeling improve building efficiency
Digital twins will accelerate the adoption of more energy-efficient building designs in several ways. First, better energy performance models will help architects assess the energy implications and estimated operating costs of various tradeoffs earlier in the design process. Second, better structural performance simulations could allow progressive building departments to vet the safety of new construction techniques like 3D-printed homes that building codes don’t yet support.
18. Bring back better
Trade tensions with China and global supply chain bottlenecks will encourage many firms to bring manufacturing closer to the biggest markets. Leading vendors of manufacturing execution systems, PLM, and process manufacturing will introduce new services to bring back better. These will combine digital twins of products and factories to manage factory configurations and product designs as code to provide further flexibility and quality control. Factory workers will be upskilled to higher-paying IT-related jobs to maintain this equipment.
19. Green taxonomies guide sustainable investments
Politicians, businesses, and researchers have developed numerous approaches for measuring and incentivizing sustainability. And sometimes, these goals have led to paradoxical efforts like cutting down and burning forests as part of the “biggest decarbonization project in Europe.” Several efforts to develop taxonomies and reporting standards could bring more common sense and collective wisdom to sustainability investing. Taxonomies are a core component of individual digital twins that reflect the impact of companies and can be aggregated into portfolios reflecting the aggregate effect of investments across many companies. European initiatives to create an EU Taxonomy of sustainability activities have driven what Bloomberg calls an ESG gold rush that should spread globally. It predicts ESG assets are on track to exceed $53 trillion by 2025, representing one-third of global investments. Now the US SEC is planning climate disclosure rules, and the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation is working on sustainability disclosure standards. Over the next year, keep an eye on more substantive ESG investment services that use digital twins to analyze and forecast investments’ environmental and financial returns. The leaders will differentiate by providing better context and alignment for investors.
20. Circulytics drives sustainable design
The circular economy is a new meme that considers how products are sourced, repaired, reused and recycled at the end of life. Product design digital twins can help designers consider the environmental impact of the components that go into a product. Product lifecycle digital twins can also simulate different repair and reuse scenarios to minimize the impact on landfills and those gigantic plastic patches growing in the oceans. Early efforts include the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on Circulytics to measure circularity across the entire enterprise. Google is working with the textile industry on the Global Fiber Impact Explorer to help make more sustainable sourcing choices. Smaller vendors like Cirularise and Circular Tree are promoting blockchain approaches. Major supply chain software and PLM vendors are likely to find ways to augment the digital twins in their existing tools, including buying best-of-breed sustainability analytics tools vendors.
21. Earth(s) 2.0 start to crawl
In 1992, I worked on Biosphere 2, a 2.5-acre analog model of the earth complete with ocean, desert, rainforest, marsh, and farm. We sealed eight people into the closed system for two years. It was a momentous idea, but it didn’t scale well and stopped running manned crews after three years. New digital models introduced last year could scale much better. Nvidia announced plans for Earth 2 (E2). Blackshark, which built the digital world for Microsoft Flight Simulator, attracted $20 million for a more extensible digital earth. And the European Union has begun work on DestinE (Destination Earth), a federated cloud-based modeling and simulation platform. Similar offerings that help developers build on top of game engines from Unity and Epic along with GIS platforms like ArcGIS could emerge in 2022.
22. Play the news with digital twin games
The proliferation of digital earths will usher in a new wave of more realistic and flexible city builders that allow gamers to play the news. Games like SimCity, Tropico, Transport Tycoon, and Cities: Skylines have demonstrated the playability and profitability of the genre. The next generation of these games will let players practice different strategies to rebuild after a tornado, fire, earthquake, or flood. Other versions will allow players to work around supply chain bottlenecks affecting ports or mitigate the economic and health outcomes of pandemics. These games will take advantage of semantic layers and knowledge graphs built into the digital twin platforms that make it easy to describe the behavior and relationship of things, like the effect of flooding on roads and power lines, earthquakes on foundations, and fires on infrastructure. Over time, gameplay will improve both strategies and the digital twins for modeling the real world.