Breaking down the buzzword: What is a Digital Twin?

The term Digital Twin gets thrown around a lot these years, but in the industry the concept is slowly becoming a business imperative, bridging the gap between the physical and the digital world. We use our expertise to answer the question: What is a Digital Twin?

Industrial IoT, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data. The buzzwords pile up when Industry 4.0 is mentioned. Especially Digital Twins have been the talk of the town in the industry the last couple of years, and the concept has been on Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2017, 2018 and 2019.

The sudden popularity of the term has transformed it into an industry buzzword used in many different contexts to describe many different concepts – not all equally true to the actual definition. That leaves a lot of confused people with the question: What is a Digital Twin?

A bridge between the physical and digital world

The term was originally coined by Dr. Michael Grieves in a talk at the University of Michigan in 2003*. At the time, digital representations of physical products were relatively new and immature, but since then the concept has evolved with the advent of the Internet of Things and modern integration technology.

Simply put, a Digital Twin is a dynamic software model of a real asset, product or system with bi-directional communication between the two. As the physical twin moves from the design phase to operation to retrofitting, the Digital Twin acts as a bridge between the digital and the physical world, tracking and capturing the entire lifecycle of the product or system.

In manufacturing and logistics, Digital Twins of automation systems allows for data analysis to avert problems before they arise, prevent downtime, and even develop in new directions and plan for the future through simulations and emulations.

Use case from the real world

A common use for a Digital Twin of an automation system is to monitor and show the live status of a running facility. For instance, Xcelgo developed a Digital Twin of a portal gantry crane that allows our customer to perform predictive maintenance at a control center several hundred miles from the actual crane

Within the Digital Twin, the control center receives warnings and suggestions for contingency actions before problems arise, service support when equipment breaks down, location of the problem, guide lines to solve it, repair instructions etc.


But the Digital Twin can have several other uses. It can for instance be used to train new operators or to spot parameters to optimize to improve performance and reduce downtime, waiting time and unexpected integration effects.

Reuse emulation models as Digital Twins

A good business case to start using Digital Twins is virtual commissioning. Virtual commissioning is the use of a digital 3D model of an automation system to test, debug and validate the system’s control software when commissioning, optimizing or retrofitting the system. You can read more about virtual commissioning here.

Virtual commissioning model of tire factory

A well-integrated virtual commissioning model has potential applications in many other phases of the automation system’s lifecycle and can for instance be used as a prototype in the design phase, for 3D animations in sales and marketing and as a true Digital Twin in the loop during operation.

The virtual commissioning model is most often so detailed and realistic that it can run in parallel with the running system with bi-directional communication between the two, functioning as a Digital Twin.

Xcelgo’s 3D modelling software platform Experior can be used in all phases of an automations system’s lifecycle – also to model and monitor Digital Twins. Read more about Experior and its applications.

* Grieves, M. Digital Twin: Manufacturing Excellence through Virtual Factory Replication; A White Paper; Michael Grieves, LLC: Melbourne, FL, USA, 2014.