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The recent Esri User Conference 2021 was a major event for virtual replicates of real-world entities, called digital twins. Real-world digital apps are also beginning to benefit from a complementary technology known as digital threads. Digital threads provide a way to integrate a comprehensive digital twin across workflows for different types of users, according to Spatial Business Systems president Dennis Beck. At the Esri event, users weighed in on how this nascent technology could optimize snow-making operations at a ski resort, improve power network management on a power grid, and streamline foot traffic in a hospital adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions.

In some respects, geographic information systems (GIS) were the original digital twins before the term was even born, Beck said.  He believes an emerging focus on digital threads will improve the integration of not just data, but processes across users, and that GIS will often be the glue.

“It is critical to have a system platform for tying information together, and we believe that GIS is the platform that does that,” Beck told an audience at Esri’s virtual gathering. The industry also needs better digital threads, he added.

What are digital threads?

In effect, digital threads are a digital blueprint consisting of a collection of data transformation models. An instance of a digital thread captures changes in design models, hardware description language base executables, and databases across a product’s lifecycle.

Beck characterized a digital twin as a digital model of a real-world object that can support the relationship between objects and evolve over time. While the industry has been working on precursors to modern digital twins since the mid-1980s, activity has accelerated as new data types are ingested at ever-faster speeds.

Beck has done considerable work for utility companies to help them integrate workflows covering material traceability, supply chain analysis, long-term quality control, and demolition. This effort includes creating user experiences that allow people in different roles to work with data across a project. Such modern applications benefit from digital twin and digital thread capabilities.

For example, Beck said, repair crews need to know the technical properties of equipment, like attachment height. Manufacturers need to understand the specifications, material information, and usage conditions. Builders need detailed plans and landscape information. Maintenance teams need to know how to access a site without trespassing. And finance teams need to know how much a part costs, how long it will last, and how expensive it is to maintain.

Ignore digital threads at your peril

Beck told VentureBeat that digital twins have not particularly taken off in areas like critical infrastructure design because the focus was on speed and efficiency. But faster designs came at the expense of information management.

Now the tides are changing, with improvements to tools that speed up design and preserve data relationships across apps. It is now possible to create an intelligent model-based design in less time than it previously took to complete simple job sketches. For example, new capabilities like raster analytics automate conversions between map images and the entities, objects, or events needed for other applications. Esri is also working on a slew of new integration and user experience capabilities to simplify digital threads.

“This enables people to take these rich models and leverage integration via service-based architectures to create a common information-based ecosystem,” Beck said. “This is what is enabling digital twins and the digital thread.”

With its extensive experience in location intelligence, Esri appears well-positioned to bridge a broad set of applications and use cases that feed digital twins. In various discussions at the recent event, users explored the way digital twins and digital threads will develop.

Healthier hospitals and offices

Esri has made a big push to bring location intelligence indoors. The goal is to improve asset tracking, optimize facilities, and streamline facilities planning. Loma Linda University Health CIO Mark Zirkelbach said the digital twins of the medical facilities helped the staff plan and optimize COVID-19 social distancing signage for visitors during the pandemic. Down the road, he also wants to use digital threads to make it easier for staff to find expensive assets like medical devices, drugs and other regulated assets, and critical assets that may be scattered around the hospital, such as oxygen tanks.

Arup digital specialist Luke Cooper said creating digital twins of his company’s building complexes has made it easier to transition staff back to the office after lockdown. Arup has 16,000 employees spread across 94 offices. Workers are coming back on a limited schedule, and digital twins help improve the employee experience of finding a desk — and finding each other — in a constantly shifting environment. The technology also allows operations teams to figure out why employees use some offices less than others. Cooper also found that a shared digital twin can help improve conversations about issues when employees have to reach a consensus quickly.

Facilitating quality control

Other ESRI improvements have focused on extending the use of digital threads across more users — all with appropriate governance. At the conference, Brian Abcunas, associate electrical engineer at Peabody Municipal Light and Power, talked about creating a workflow to make it easier for more people to notice mistakes in the their network’s digital twin. The power company is constantly making changes, like replacing transformers or adding circuits, that do not always get updated on the master map. Traditionally, one person was responsible for cross-referencing paper documents, CAD drawings, and GIS maps to find errors. Now, Abcunas’ team has streamlined the process using a web-based interface.

In another application, the Telluride Ski and Golf resort recently built a digital twin of its facility to help orchestrate an ambitious expansion of its snow-making operation. GIS analyst and drone operator Matt Tarkington said a digital twin allows the resort to plan for long-term sustainability while using the least amount of water and power. The digital twin also helps coordinate communication about crucial events — such as avalanches, equipment breakdowns, and accidents — across teams in real time.

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