The concept of a digital twin has been around for well over a decade, but many industries have been giving it a serious look only in the past few years. The technologies available to create digital twins have become more sophisticated, more useful, and less expensive. Now the digital twin frequently appears on top 10 lists of the hottest technological trends—even though it’s not a single technology, but a general term for a product that can be produced by various technologies and can take different forms. Utilities and communications are among the industries showing increased interest in digital twins.
What Does the Term Digital Twin Mean?
A digital twin is an interactive digital replica of either a physical object or an intangible process. We’re focused on the first sense—detailed digital copies of physical assets such as utility poles, pole attachments, cables, transformers, nodes, substations, conduit vaults, and communications infrastructure. Of course, the object duplicated could also be a room, a building, an automobile, a spacecraft, a hill, a riverbed, or even a human heart.
How Do You Make a Digital Twin?
For utility and communications purposes, an effective digital twin requires a lot of data, which can be gathered by various methods. Two of the commonly used methods are photogrammetry, which combines high-resolution photography with sensors that provide a set of measurements, and LiDAR (Light Direction and Ranging), which pairs rapid pulses of laser light with sensors to measure objects and their surroundings. The data is fed into software, organized, analyzed, and processed, by someone with expertise in the field.
The finished product could be simply a highly detailed set of data on a physical asset, but most often it takes a visual form, ranging from a point cloud to a measurable 3D photographic copy. If desired, dozens or even hundreds of individual photographs can be stitched together digitally into a single three-dimensional image.
Regardless of their forms, all digital twins can be accessed quickly, at any time, from the convenience of your office. This kind of accessibility will be important to companies in many industries moving forward.
How Do Digital Twins Offer Cost Savings?
It’s easy to see the value of having an accurate replica, there on your desktop, of an asset that may be 2000 miles away. Over the years, the amount of money and time a company could save by limiting the need for repeated trips to physical sites could be enormous.
The quality of the data collection and data management is crucial to building the best possible digital twin and achieving maximum savings and efficiency. Winging it is a recipe for headaches and limited usefulness, as the Utility Analytics Institute noted while touting the digital twin’s potential benefits.
Even in the 21st century, a lot of inefficiencies remain in utility and communications company operations. Technology is making those inefficiencies easier to eliminate. Companies that fail to take advantage of this opportunity stand to lose competitive ground.
The uses of a digital twin can be broadly grouped into two categories: the ability to provide a replica of an existing environment and the ability to provide predictive modeling. Let’s take a closer look at these two uses.
Capturing Existing Reality
First, a well-built digital twin is an accurate copy of a physical reality. The data and measurements are available for any use that may arise, potentially including purposes nobody was thinking about when the data was originally collected.
This wide range of uses is especially important in joint use. Requests for attachment to utility assets are multiplying exponentially with the rollout of 5G and the related deployment of small cell equipment to densify networks. Each new request means taking a look at existing reality to determine, for example, the current condition of a utility pole, the amount of equipment already attached, the precise placement of that equipment, and any make-ready work that may be necessary to allow any proposed attachments. A digital twin could simplify and speed up this process.
After construction is completed, new data can be collected and the digital twin updated to allow comparison of the asset before and after new equipment was installed.
Predicting Endless Possibilities
The greatest advantage of a digital twin may be in its usefulness for predictive modeling.
Some industries caught on early regarding the use of digital twins in predicting the effects of various modifications or harmful events on machines and other equipment. For example, auto manufacturers began using digital twins for virtual crash testing. An accurate digital replica of an actual automobile could be crashed repeatedly under an endless variety of circumstances, with far more variations than would be practical using physical models, at little expense.
For utility and communications infrastructure, digital twins enable the owner to “play with the plant,” simulating a huge array of possible changes, whether intentional or accidental. This kind of modeling makes it easier for companies to be proactive in managing their assets. When modeling suggests equipment failure is likely, for example, the company can replace the equipment before it malfunctions.
For another example, a computer load analysis on a group of utility poles could simulate storms of varying strength, showing which poles are too weak to bear the brunt of heavy winds. A digital twin of a substation and its surroundings could potentially be used to determine its susceptibility to flood damage from a nearby creek and to computer-test the effectiveness of different remedies such as levees, flood walls, and equipment reconfiguration.
We Can Build It Together
The potential benefits of digital twins are growing all the time. The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to multiply those uses further, enabling significant advances in real-time monitoring of assets—a digital twin that’s always “live.”
When you need assistance, Alden is ready to help. We have a nationally recognized web-based platform for joint use, Alden One®, that can manage large amounts of data, streamline operations, simplify data sharing and other communications, and much more. We also have an expert business support team that can help you take full advantage of the benefits a digital twin can provide.
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