Digital twin technology in manufacturing

Flexibility and cost savings to provide quality products to customers

by Brandon Lavy, Channel Manager—Industry Solutions


Hugh Arif, Director of Industry Solutions at AT&T Business, offers more than 30 years of experience in manufacturing, including aerospace, and rubber and chemical production. He meets with manufacturers to discuss the pain points of their business and helps them to discover the best solutions to meet their short-term and long-term goals. 

One of the hot topics in manufacturing is digital twin technology. Hugh provides an overview and shares a bit about what he’s seeing by meeting with manufacturing leaders.


Q: Technology that’s changing the way manufacturers create products and provide better throughput seems to be developing at breakneck speed. Digital twin technology is increasingly becoming a more significant part of that. Before we dive in, could you provide an overview of digital twin and share the types of applications that are most common?

A: I’d be happy to. A digital twin is a digital or electronic representation of a product, a factory production line, or even an entire factory. Some have even suggested it can be a twin of an entire city. It’s somewhat like a wire-frame or a solid computer-aided design model. Data from the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on the product or the in the factory can be integrated into a digital twin to monitor their use and operation. In doing this, manufacturers can take note of how their products are performing in actual use and make improvements in future versions. Plant engineers can use digital twins to remotely monitor their production equipment or perform planning for adjustments to their equipment locations. This is a very flexible technology, so there can be many other uses that can make products better and operations more efficient.

Q: Thank you for that description, Hugh. A Gartner survey from 2018 estimates that by 2022, the use of digital twins by manufacturers who increase implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT) will triple. And half of those with $5 billion in revenue will invest by 20201. What seems to be driving this rapid adoption?

A: Companies are always under pressure to increase efficiencies and produce more with less. In addition, skilled workers are still in short supply, and supply chains for manufacturers are truly global. Customers are increasingly demanding higher quality products, according to their specific tastes, and for faster delivery to them.

To meet these challenges, manufacturers would like to obtain usage data for their products based on local and fast changing customer demands. Digital twin technology helps in visualizing and simulating the improvements that are needed to fulfill ever-changing customer expectations for higher quality and performance. These demands may also require product changes, which then result in modifications to production lines. Digital twin also helps in achieving many of these changes efficiently. 

Q: Being able address the needs of the market this way can deliver savings not only in time, but costs as well, then.

A: Absolutely! It’s easier and more expedient to make changes in a computer simulation and to analyze the results rather than by making physical changes in products and plant floor production lines. What-if scenarios can be conducted digitally, which is a faster process and results in savings of time and costs. It also creates higher quality results. This is how NASA developed the technology in the 1960s when it used physical mockups of spacecraft in orbit to replicate and solve problems by making changes, which then lead to the digital simulations of these spacecraft.


Q: It’s incredible that this type of process has been in use so long. Now it’s becoming commonplace to everyday manufacturers. So, in virtually all use cases, a lot of detail has to be calculated to provide an accurate digital rendering. And in production-based scenarios, there’s no time for lag. I imagine that all of this data can put a lot of demand on the network.

A: These twins are graphic files that are very large and which require a lot of network capacity and time, if processed in a central cloud. By using edge technologies such as Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC), models can be resident locally to a plant floor, thereby saving in network bandwidth costs and offering other advantages as well.

Q: Even with MEC, can an LTE-based infrastructure handle this type of load?

A: A localized cellular infrastructure using LTE and MEC will offer cost benefits and operational advantages as compared to performing cloud computing in a central cloud. But, a similar set-up using 5G instead of LTE will offer even lower latency, greater reliability, and higher bandwidths to a digital twin model. There are greater advantages in using 5G!

Q: I’m glad you mentioned 5G. It comes into the conversation early now, doesn’t it?

A: Yes, it does! Our manufacturing customers are looking forward to the rollout of 5G in helping them with emerging technologies on the plant floor.

Q: So we have hardware that’s being replicated as digital on a network that has to take IoT and communications into account when calculating exactly what’s needed for a successful implementation of digital twin technology. This sounds like the ideal case where IT and OT need to collaborate. Would you say that’s true?

A: Certainly, there is greater need for cybersecurity in the flow of information between IT and OT, as well as in bringing computing resources closer to both the source when it’s needed and in the use of data, which is in OT. Many of the applications that store data reside on the IT side. To lower the round-trip times for digital twin renderings and other use cases, these applications may have to reside closer to the plant floor, perhaps in the MEC or in a data center connected to it.

Q: It’s always good when we can address silos. Now, with digital twin in mind, what do you think the factory will look like 5 years from now?

A: The momentum to adopt new technology is increasing with innovation for manufacturing. In my opinion, there will be greater use of this technology in running “virtual factories,” where remote workers will be supervising from digital simulations of these factories, thousands of miles away. With greater shortages in skilled workers and greater use of Industrial IoT (IIoT), along with machine learning (ML)/artificial intelligence (AI), and analytics, this technology will increase in use. And, virtual startups and training for many processes will make twins even more prevalent.  

Q: Great information, Hugh. Any final thoughts? 


A: A lot of them, but I’ll end with this—as digital twin technology gains widespread usage, it will offer more opportunities for in a number of ways. This includes networks to carrying large amounts of IIoT data from sensors and cloud storage for that data, the use of edge computing at the plant floor or locally for applications, ML/AI applications, and analytics for predictive maintenance of plant machinery. This network will need to be highly secure to protect the information it carries to provide peace of mind that data stays within the walls of the factory or is accessed by authorized parties. With this, there’s more freedom and flexibility to innovate the quality products that customers are looking for.

Learn more about AT&T Business solutions for the manufacturing industry.