Digital imagination at work

It seems implausible to talk about a 120-year old technology company, when few make it past 120 months. But industrial behemoth GE, founded in 1886, is today transforming itself into a modern digital company, betting big on software and analytics.

GE’s structured approach to this transformation includes major investments in developing the concept of a digital twin for many of the products and systems that it sells in the physical world.

Digital Twin Jet engineNot to worry: GE isn’t building a robot to replace you. What they are doing is building a digital representation of every GE machine—from jet engines to locomotives, from gas turbines to powerplant-scale circuit breakers. This dynamic digital model will over time become a virtual twin. These digital twins harness data from sensors that are monitoring the performance of GE’s products in the real world and then use algorithms that offer continuous insight and support reasonable projections about the future, based on how the digital twin’s dynamic model responds to the data from its physical twin’s sensors.

Put another way, if the machine isn’t feeling well, it says so. If it’s not performing correctly for some reason, its owner knows it. Furthermore, by applying predictive analytics to the digital twin, GE’s customers are able to proactively take equipment out of production for maintenance, ensuring almost no unplanned down-time on shop floors, in energy plants, or for its jet engines (which, as a global traveler, I greatly appreciate!).

Previously, performing scheduled maintenance on such large and complex machines was dictated by averages derived from field experience. Think of it as being forced to change the oil and oil filter on your car every 5,000 miles.

By implementing a digital twin—that is, data sensors and monitors, a digital “brain,” and a communications protocol—a GE service team will know not only when to inspect a machine or service it, but what parts to have on hand when doing so, and how long each machine will be out of service. The outcome is almost no unpredictable down-time for customers, and better profit margins for GE on its service contracts.

My digital twin?

Oh, and yes: you may not even realize it, but many of us are already creating the basic building blocks of our own digital twins. From the type of device you use to what you do with it, we have a collection of data points that mirrors the rough outlines of our daily lives.

It’s certainly a leap, conceptually and practically, but Cognizant is being tasked with applying this same concept for clients who offer customers connected products and services that gather user data to deliver a more personalized experience.  Consumer electronics or medical device manufacturers, travel and hospitality companies, online service providers: all are requesting connected and programmable products and services that can generate customer-specific data that could eventually be aggregated to build our digital twins.

Imagine: In the not-too-distant future, and of course subject to our consent, our digital twins will monitor our interests and preferences (and, thus, our values) based on data inputs like our archived emails, purchase histories, and the historical usage patterns of our connected products and services. Over time, our digital twins will be capable of being our personal agents, absorbing much of today’s information overload and acting on it on our behalf, so we don’t have to.

This needn’t feel intrusive. Unlike viewing a list of books on Amazon similar to ones we’ve purchased before, or seeing in iTunes musical choices based on our past buying history, I expect that we will be able to manage the algorithms—and the actions our digital twins take as a result—by ourselves.

And, really, do you enjoy waiting in line at Target to buy laundry detergent? Would you do that, if your digital twin could get some more for you, instead, when your supply is low and the version of Tide or Persil you want comes on sale?

And, yes, this can feel a little awkward. But it doesn’t mean we won’t live our own lives. We aren’t outsourcing human experience so much as handing off what interferes with it, or dare I say distracts us from living a more present life. If we’re not bogged down in the minutiae that a digital twin could handle for us, we could live better, more informed, and fuller lives ourselves.

Put another way: What if my self-driving car could take itself in for an oil change? I’d sure let my digital twin do it. I’ll be walking my daughter to school in the morning. Or I’ll be at the beach with my family.

Theo Forbath

Theo Forbath

Theo Forbath is Global Vice President of Digital Transformation at Cognizant. With more than fifteen years’ experience as an innovator in global... Read more