Towards digitization: Digital twin technology at the service of environmental sustainability

Solar panels and wind turbines

By John Davies, Chief Researcher, BT                                                                                                                                                                                        

While the concept of a digital twin is no longer new, the technology has been steadily generating growing interest over the last few years, particularly as it is increasingly being seen as a key enabler of Industry 4.0. For people unfamiliar with the technology, a digital twin is a digital representation of a product, process, service, or ecosystem – for instance, a network simulator can be the digital twin of an actual network, a virtual machine can be the digital twin of a server etc. The digital twin representation of a resource can be used to test changes to its configuration, behaviour, and use in business processes in ways that are less destructive or intrusive than their real-life physical equivalent. Digital twins can therefore be used to run stress tests that would be too complex or costly to run in real life – they allow us to see what might happen when certain adjustments are made to a resource or process. Essentially, it can execute simulation models to test and predict process changes when under different and varied ‘what if’ scenarios.

Of course, this ability to test hypotheses without the need to disrupt the real-world environment has made digital twin technology a very attractive proposition for a number of sectors, including manufacturing, healthcare, transport, energy, and infrastructure. For many enterprises, a digital twin is seen as the means to realize significant commercial benefits, including improved operations, product and service innovation, as well as faster time to market. Gartner predicts that by 2023, one-third of mid-to-large-size companies that implemented IoT will have implemented at least one digital twin that is active and delivering tangible business benefits. And with Industry 4.0 in its nascent stages, digital twins are an integral part of the ecosystem that also includes IoT, robotics, AI, and automation.

Today BT is exploring the potential advantages that this concept offers, particularly with a view to sustainability and tackling the climate emergency. Optimization is an essential driver of sustainability, and this is where digital twins can make a decisive difference. Currently there are a number of new and innovative use cases which illustrate the benefits of the technology. One example is BT’s partnership with major utilities providers to develop a utilities digital twin that aims to increase climate resilience in the face of changing and unpredictable weather patterns. With our partners Anglian Water and UK Power Networks, and with the help of the National Digital Twin programme, the collaboration is helping to build a digital twin across energy, water, and telecoms networks. Each vertical knows that flooding events affect their operations, and the ability to predict where and how severely those events will happen would allow them to plan accordingly and to be able to optimize service delivery. A digital twin can therefore be fed with weather data and flood event predictions. The digital twin environment will then provide a view of how the service network would respond to such disruption. The processes that are in place to maintain and restore service delivery can be tested and optimized with a view of how to respond to those incidents.

In a further example, BT took part in a project exploring the optimization of energy consumption patterns associated with the use of air conditioning in buildings.in the Middle East.  As temperatures frequently soar to 45 degrees, air conditioning represents a huge running cost to keep acceptable temperatures within buildings and office spaces. The ability to reduce energy consumption provides commercial and environmental benefits. The creation of a digital twin for the buildings, along with the deployment of in-building sensors connected to the digital twin augmented with weather data and simulations of space occupancy and utilization, allows for the minimisation of power consumption while achieving the required temperature and humidity through the optimal use of the air conditioning system.

In a digital twin application delivered to Hyperbat, one of the UK’s largest vehicle battery manufacturers, BT together with Ericsson and NVIDIA, enabled dispersed teams across design, engineering, and manufacturing to collaborate more efficiently using a virtual 3D engineering model showing how the technology is set to accelerate the pace of innovation in the UK manufacturing sector. This caters for greater energy efficiency by reducing the need for travel and its associated impacts.

There is no doubt that digital twins have the power to enable enterprises to improve innovation and performance, particularly when it comes to monitoring and identifying ways to become more efficient, prevent downtimes and plan for future events. This clearly has positive implications for environmental sustainability and is especially timely when seen against the backdrop of the recent COP26 summit which reinforced the urgent need to find more radical solutions to the threat of climate breakdown. That’s why BT – with the guidance of Tim Whitley, Research and Innovation MD and chair of the UK government’s UKRI advisory group on digital twins – are advising the government on policy and initiatives encouraging the adoption of digital twin technology across UK industries to help the UK meet its long-term sustainability targets.