The digital twin, a magic tool for innovation

In 1890, Oscar Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, a fantastic and philosophical novel where, following an ardent prayer, a young English dandy sees his portrait age in his place, thus allowing him to remain eternally young. If they are perfectly “twins” at the start, the difference between the two will continue to grow until the end of the novel. In real life, the image is fixed, where the living is constantly changing. Here, in a spectacular inversion, it is the image which testifies to the different evolutions of its model, which always remains identical. It is the artifact that reflects the different states of experience from which its model seems miraculously spared.

From this point of view, the digital twin, one of the most captivating manifestations of innovation, is not unlike the image created by Wilde. Indeed, the digital twin has the power, not only to represent something, but to capture and represent the experience that we can have of things.

The digital twin is a digital duplicate of a material reality (hence the use of the term “twin”). Designed to virtually duplicate any type of environment, it is concretely a 3D digital model capable of integrating and dynamically synthesizing an ever-increasing number of data from various sources. Device capable of virtualizing physical assets, systems or processes in order to optimize their operation, it is deployed today in multiple fields of application, ranging from architecture to urban planning via industry. Associated in particular with new technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and additive manufacturing (3D printing), it literally produces a revolution in productivity and work quality.

The openness to innovation produced by the digital twin is the ability given to creators and industrialists to implement almost limitless innovative avenues of exploration. Whatever the industries, whatever the sectors, whatever the projects.

Tireless creator of novelty and optimization

Like a tireless creator, the digital twin can, for example, virtually create hundreds of factories that do not exist to bring out the best factory configuration that will exist. Once all levels of the plant have been modeled, each parameter can be varied to produce simulations that determine the shapes of the most successful organizations. They thus prevent manufacturers from making costly mistakes, while allowing them to optimize their production lines before implementation and then in real time. The digital twin has the big advantage of not incurring infrastructure projects, costs and investments. It allows you to test, inexpensively and in record time, all organizational solutions to find the best one. Committing organizational errors in software does not cost anything, contrary to what happens in the hardware world. The costs of creating and developing ideas are indeed infinitely lower with digital tools than with analog tools. A jig or a prototype is considerably more expensive if it is made “in real life” rather than in virtual form. Not to mention the time required to complete a project, which is considerably shortened. It is a real revolution.

The most productive factory is the one with the most optimized cost/benefit ratio, but also and above all the one where we work in the most fluid way, the organization and the configuration of the space where the employees feel best to work. The difference sometimes comes down to a few details: placing a machine tool a few centimeters further to the left or further to the right, which maximizes circulation and working conditions inside the factory. The digital twin offers the possibility of configuring the spatial organization of a factory as well as possible, but also, once it is built and in operation, it makes it possible to optimize, in particular thanks to the IoT, all the manufacturing methods. in the creation of the company’s value chain. It’s a whole new way of organizing production. The smart factory interconnects machines and systems on production sites. It also extends externally, including customers, partners and other production sites. It is not just about digitalized production, but rather digitalized production fueled by new ways of inventing, learning, producing and selling.

This new industry is asserting itself as one of the places where the virtual world, digital design and management converge with the products and objects of the real world.

Boosting the real through the virtual

The digital twin is one of the tools for the reconfiguration of a rather special border, in the sense that it is fundamental: it is the border between real and virtual which is displaced. The digital twin starts from an intuition: to modify reality and make it more efficient, nothing beats the virtual – to improve the world, it must be abstracted. One of the most disruptive dimensions of innovation is to have made it possible to become aware of and then to exploit the potentialities of the virtual universe. She demonstrated his ability to reveal and then deploy an infinite field of possibilities. The digitization of the world has produced a confidence in the digital, which has allowed the virtual to become an integral part of reality, which is deeply nourished and energized. Even more, its transforming action has meant that we have ceased to oppose one and the other (what would be “virtual” would not be “real”) to make them work together.

One of the great novelties brought by the digital twin is that an artefact (a simulation) can materialize our experiences for us. In other words: with the digital twin, the virtual shows its power to model reality to multiply, frame and anticipate all the possibilities of evolution. The infinite parameterization of the twin’s variables offers the possibility of making reality evolve until an optimized version is obtained. The difference with the portrait of Dorian Gray is that we no longer need to do the experiments concretely: the model remains unchanged until the twin has explored all the possible solutions, and the best configuration has not imposed.

Moreover, when we move into the virtual, we enter into boundary logics and metrics that are self-creating and self-generating. The virtual creates its own dynamics, its own scales, its own measures which transform the real, and thus literally new frontiers.

A copy that is not a copy

Although most of the time it is a copy of a reality, the digital twin is not a copy. For a simple reason: digital has made the idea of ​​copying partially obsolete, which, by definition, presupposes a model. Largely based on digital and the various new technologies that have emerged from it, innovation has shaken a large part of the conceptual architecture of the old world, which was analog in nature. In particular, it caused one of the great distinctions that founded the analogical structure of the world to disappear: the strict difference in nature between model and copy. The model was unique and authentic, where the copy was only a degraded reproduction. These categories have become floating.

In the case of the digital twin, this fluctuating relationship of model and copy is particularly clear. The twin allows you to start from scratch or to improve (arrange or rearrange) the existing one. It can therefore be the object either of a radical innovation or of a progressive innovation. Starting from an old factory that we reconfigure with a digital twin, we have a model (the real factory) and a copy (the twin that runs many reconfiguration solutions to find the best one). On the other hand, when we start from radical innovation where we create a factory from scratch from a digital project, the relationship is reversed: in this case the model becomes the digital project, and the copy, the real factory (which will be built from the multitudes of solutions scanned by the twin). Who is then whose twin? There is a crossover between model and copy, depending on the nature of the innovation at work in a project. The digital twin has the ability to make reality a copy of reality, entirely present in the virtual. Moreover, the term “to model” clearly shows how a “copy” can become a model.

Make alternate worlds exist

Few objects are as fascinating as the digital twin. One of the main contributions of this magic tool of innovation is to make alternative worlds exist. Whether it is to improve an existing device or to create one from scratch, the same logic works. The field of application of the digital twin does not matter: it makes it possible to explore the difference between what is and what could be.

These alternative worlds are all the possible universes (or modes of organization) created from nothing, those which can give substance to a project, or the multiple configurations resulting from the improvement of the existing one. One of the abilities of the digital twin is to be able to mutate what it mirrors. In the logic of a company, for example, this can challenge existing business models. Predictive analysis makes it possible to model new financial approaches, and to bring out offers for a company that are not in its current portfolio. But one can also have a digital twin not of a material reality, but of a project of pure imagination. Knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, the digital twin can even help create things we didn’t even have a clue about.

In this ability to produce and test multiple alternative configurations are finally summed up all the virtues of innovation: to bring into existence what does not exist in order to change or improve what exists. This is how innovation shows how it contributes to the emergence of a better world, a constantly improving world.

Seen in this way, the real is ultimately not so far from the concept of metaverse, and the universe of video games to which it owes a lot. ! And as the digital twin is likely to integrate immersive capacities, one can easily evolve (real estate programs, for example) and act (industry) in these digitized spaces with a Virtual Reality headset, like in a video game. Thus, the real reinterpreted by the digital twin can become as captivating as a game. A game that everyone who plays wins!


By Alain Conrard, author of the book “Osons! Another look at innovation”, an essay published by Cent Mille Milliards, in September 2020, CEO of Prodware Group and President of the Digital and Innovation Commission of the Mouvement des ETI (METI) (LinkedIn