digital twin

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a product or workflow across its lifecycle. Digital twins play an important role in manufacturing, as well as supply chain management, healthcare and the court system.

A digital twin is composed of three elements:

  1. A physical item in real space.
  2. The digital twin in software form.
  3. Data that links the first two elements together.

Historically, digital twins have been used to build predictive models and conduct simulations. For example, the National Football League used statistically-built digital twins to test proposed changes to player equipment without risking the health and safety of real players.

With the advent of the internet of things, however, the use cases for digital twins have expanded to include monitoring for desired state and taking action when a desired state is not reached. This type of digital twin may also be known as a "state machine."


Depending upon the industry, a digital twin may also be referred to as a virtual twin, a digital clone, a virtual mirror or a virtual model.

Digital twins in manufacturing

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a product. It can be used in product design, simulation, monitoring, optimization and servicing and is an important concept in the industrial Internet of Things.

Digital twins are created in the same computer-aided design (CAD) and modeling software that designers and engineers use in the early stages of product development. The difference with a digital twin is that the model is retained for later stages of the product's lifecycle, such as inspection and maintenance.

According to product lifecycle management (PLM) expert Michael Grieves, who was among the first to use the term, the concept of the digital twin requires three elements: the physical product in real space, its digital twin in virtual space and the information that links the two.

Sensors connected to the physical product can collect data and send it back to the digital twin, and their interaction can help optimize the product's performance. For example, sensors might detect when a car's engine oil needs changing, and the car's digital twin will have an overlay image indicating the new information, which can appear on the owner's smartphone or the manufacturer's PLM system. Some manufacturers, including power tool maker Black & Decker, have extended the digital twin concept to encompass assembly lines and other factory systems.

The same images overlaid with real-time sensor data can be used in augmented reality (AR) applications for product maintenance and field service. In AR, the digital twin must be able to follow the product's location and movement.

This was last updated in April 2020

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