Using Digital Twin Technology in a Physical World

The life of clinician is never dull. Situations that might seem rare happen almost daily, and it’s nearly impossible to anticipate what may happen next. Still, the right preparation can go a long way. In many industries, there are methods to deal with such risky and costly situations.

One simulation type that’s growing in popularity is the digital twin, which is used to simulate complex real-world processes in a digital environment. It’s an innovative technology that’s being used by an increasing number of companies like IBM, Boeing, and Tesla.

It is not surprising that the global digital twin market is on the surge - it’s expected to increase by almost 40% annually by 2025. As such, digital twins have found their place in many industries, most notably in healthcare. They allow hospitals to fine-tune their operations and adapt the approach to patients.

What are digital twins, exactly?

Digital Twins are virtual equivalents of physical objects and processes. Besides the visual representation, these digital equivalents also include mathematical models and sensor data that helps provide updates in real time. However, a digital twin is only as good as the model and data used to create it.

Why do companies utilize digital twin technology? When implemented correctly, it allows users to manipulate a digital entity and learn something, without affecting anything in the physical space. More or less, digital twins cut the shortcomings of more traditional experiments: Risks are marginal, costs are low, and the required time window is short, as you can get feedback instantly.

Another advantage digital twins provide is an insight into the process – they can detect issues even before they arise. By coupling the digital twin with machine learning or artificial intelligence algorithms, users are able to track even the tiniest of processes that may otherwise remain hidden to the human eye.

A digital twin to fix a physical space

Healthcare is one of many industries where digital twins can easily and effectively be applied. Mater Private Hospital in Dublin was faced with snowballing patient numbers, increasing complexity, and out-of-date equipment. Such conditions resulted in overworked staff, unhappy patients, and, by relation, unhappy management. It was evident that changes were long overdue, and more specifically, that the radiology department needed a redesign.

However, there are endless possibilities when redesigning something. As a process, optimization is complex – there are many variables, boundaries, and objectives. Thus, the management decided to use digital twin technology to solve the problem. A virtual copy of the radiology department allowed the engineers to change procedures and scenarios, without disrupting daily operations.

The result? Tests that used to take months were completed in a matter of hours. Any unfavorable or unwanted changes could be easily reversed. After evaluating the effects of various scenarios, the most efficient one was selected.

“It was amazing watching our 2D plans transform into 3D, then 4D, reality. Thanks to our digital twin, we now have the best possible configuration for our department,” said Paddy Gilligan, Chief Physicist & Registered Radiation Protection Advisor at MPH.

The benefits were apparent – the hospital reported shorter wait times (by 25 minutes) and increased equipment use. MRI capacity alone rose by 32%, while staffing costs fell by over $10,000 annually, due to a lower number of overtime hours.

Further opportunities – “my digital twin”

Besides layout optimization, digital twins help health professionals in other ways. Their use in the preparation of surgical procedures is particularly helpful, both for doctors and patients. Digital twins enable a surgeon to plan the procedure and find the ideal path to success, even mitigating the need for surgery, in some cases. For cardiologist Benjamin Medder, digital twin technology gave him the opportunity to place a pacemaker in a digital heart, allowing him to run simulations of the effectiveness of the potential procedure before it happens.

To better illustrate the usefulness of digital twins, here is an unsettling example: Two-thirds of endovascular repairs were found to be out of place. However, that leaves plenty of opportunity for optimization. An experimental software was developed, allowing for quick evaluation of the implant position. By varying its position, the surgeon can maximize the surgery’s effectiveness, and subsequently, the patient’s prognosis. Preliminary clinical trials have shown that the method has eliminated the need for repeated surgery.

Besides helping veteran surgeons, digital twins are also very tempting to surgical residents. Unlike traditional trainings that may take place using real, physical examples, digital twins allow for procedures to be repeated using different scenarios every time.

Digital twins in manufacturing

Outside of the healthcare industry, there are other industries that are already being improved by digital twins. Manufacturing, for instance, uses the technology in plenty of ways, from current and future product design to actual production process improvements. With the rise of theInternet of Things and an influx of digitally enabled smart technologies, the opportunity for digital twins has only grown.

For manufacturers with multiple factories in different locations, a digital twin can serve to help optimize process lines, individual pieces of equipment, and more, all without actually changing daily operations.

“It is a window to understanding where issues lie, where improvements can be made, and how to better optimize production,” says Chris Parsons, VP of Global Marketing at Critical Manufacturing.

There are other applications for product designers and engineers, as well. Digital twins present a new opportunity for designers and engineers to incorporate sensors and assets that can provide real-time data. With that data, they can then test and experiment with product changes to provide improvements, even while out in the field. This type of immediate customer engagement and feedback is something that has been a struggle in the past.

Cautious optimism for digital twins

Digital twin technology does have shortcomings that should be addressed. Countless examples of data breaches should make early adopters a bit cautious, as the problems caused by a leak of a digital twin body could be tremendous.

That said, digital twin technology is making an impact on industries globally, and it seems that the future is bright.

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