A Digital Twin refers to a virtual replication of a physical object – with the two linked together dynamically – enabling insights to be learned and actions to be taken within the virtual environment that can be applied to the physical object — ultimately to meet business goals.
The digital twin concept impacts a wide range of domains, from engineering to architecture to aerospace. Applying the digital twin model to the technical support domain will be truly transformative, with its ability to revolutionize the role of the on-site/field technician.
Field tech support has already begun merging the digital and physical worlds by utilizing immersive technologies – such as augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) or virtual reality (VR) – to manipulate real-life objects. In fact, the IDC forecasts that 25% of field-service technicians will use augmented reality by 2020, leveraging image overlay in their day-to-day activities.
As more and more products become connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), this concept has the potential to have a greater impact in the day-to-day activities of maintenance and technical support.
DIgital Twin Example
Let’s take a screw as a hypothetical Digital Twin example. Imagine the advent of a smart sensitive screw that can identify when it is loose, and transmit this information to its digital twin. Once alerted, the digital twin (or the human behind it) can apply a rotation action virtually, causing the physical twin to rotate itself back into the correct position.
This dynamic process not only eliminates the need for screwdrivers, it also prevents accidents and further damage caused by loose screws, as well as the need for a field technician to be dispatched for periodic maintenance.
Once considered science fiction, the concept of digital twins has shifted to reality much faster in recent years thanks to IoT growth, lowered costs, and technologies enabling digitization and virtualization, such as artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and computer vision, AR & VR.
According to a prediction by the IDC, by 2020, 30% of Global 2000 companies will be using data from digital twins of IoT-connected products to improve innovation and organizational efficiency, achieving productivity gains of up to 25%.
Technical Support in the age of Digital Twins
The use of digital twins has an almost unlimited potential to impact the technical support domain, both by enhancing consumer interactions with their technology and by empowering field support organizations. Here are some sample use cases:
Predictive analytics and maintenance
The pairing of the virtual and physical worlds allows field service organizations or enterprise support centers to understand not only how products are performing, but they can use advanced analysis to predict how the products will likely perform in the future.
For example, analysis on a digital twin may indicate the need for proactive maintenance, which then decreases the likelihood of damage to the system or product, and reduces the downtime that generally occurs when there is an actual malfunction.
Armed with this important data, organizations can enhance their decision-making abilities with new insights into proactive service requirements, product innovation, lifecycle expectations, and even the development of new products/services for the future.
With technician dispatches representing a significant expenditure to the organization, the ability to troubleshoot remotely is seen as a direct cost savings. Rather than traveling to interact with a faulty physical machine or device, the expert can interact with its digital twin from the comfort of his office, fixing the problem without leaving his desk. The expert can also remotely transmit his knowledge by collaborating virtually with an on-site technician – or even a consumer – to deliver a visual explanation for faster issue resolution. For example, an expert on commercial copy machines can use a digital twin to show the on-site technician exactly how to repair a certain model.
Just as in our example of the smart screw, the impact of digital twins on the consumer mass market has the potential to be huge. There are endless possibilities of how digital twins can facilitate the activation, manipulation and repair of physical objects with consumers and technicians collaborating solely in the digital domain. Consumers can access all the information about their devices in the digital domain, including interactive automated visual guidance to unbox, activate and troubleshoot their technology from the comfort of their homes. Using digital twins to further boost the adoption of self-service follows the trend toward personalized service, and the shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach to customers.
The evolution of digital twins
Digital twins gain by being linked not only to corresponding physical objects but also networked to each other. This creates large data sets for each and every device, combination of devices, and the scenarios around the devices and their performances.
The use of cognitive computing will further increase the abilities of the digital twin. Technologies such as Natural Language Processing (NLP), machine learning and object/visual recognition can further augment traditional field support capabilities, making a significant impact on the industry. In time, powered by AI deep learning, digital twins will “continue optimizing their cognitive, digital and physical design and capabilities based on the data they’ll collect and experience they’ll gain, not only based on models and data they were given or they inherited.” (Cognitive World)
Bridging physical and digital realities
The digital twin concept is transformative. It strengthens the bond between physical and virtual objects, and therefore empowers humans to have better control over their technology.
Digital twin technology will make a significant impact on the technical support domain: both by empowering field support organizations and enhancing consumer interactions with their technology. While the technology is still evolving in the short term, it promises to deliver significant value to enterprises, especially those using complex machinery.
Gartner predicts that organizations will initially implement digital twins, improve them over time via AI and immersive technologies, and eventually develop new economic and business models that deliver maximum value. The research firm included the technology in its top 10 strategic technology trends for 2018, stating that digital twins are particularly promising over the next three to five years in the context of IoT.