A year ago, millions of people celebrated the culmination of a seamless mission: a NASA rover, Perseverance, entered Mars’ atmosphere at more than 12,000 miles per hour, then smoothly decelerated to a mere walking pace as it touched down safely on the Red Planet.
It was a thrilling moment. And as I followed the journey of the rover from its launch in Cape Canaveral, it struck me that this historic moment was supported by technology that still isn’t well known outside of industry circles: the digital twin.
The digital twin might lack the name recognition of technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, or 3D printing, yet it surely ranks among the most remarkable industrial technologies to emerge since I started my career as a software programmer in the early 1980s.
Produced with software and leveraging data, digital twins enable us to authentically replicate and simulate products, processes, and industrial settings on a computer screen. In other words, digital twins are manifestations of the real world in digital form.
The term was first introduced in academia 20 years ago. In 2007, Siemens acquired a pioneering digital twin software company. Today, more than 170,000 companies and organizations are using the software to innovate faster and more sustainably by combining the real and digital worlds.
Imagine the cost of building physical prototypes of the Mars rover, or the difficulty of creating an atmosphere 100 times thinner than Earth’s inside a lab. Yet, we can build a digital twin of a rover that behaves exactly like the physical object. The Martian atmosphere can be simulated with software. And that’s exactly what NASA did to achieve its latest breakthrough.
So, here’s the big question: What can we now accomplish by wielding this capability as part of a mission to remake American industry and infrastructure?
One area of opportunity is addressing weaknesses in our supply chain linked to gaps in national response and shortages of items critical to our economy, such as semiconductors.
Preparedness strategies have long emphasized having adequate physical inventories; yet, as the pandemic proved, the challenges ahead are often unpredictable. The things needed today, from personal protective equipment to chips, might not be what we need tomorrow.
But with digital twins, we don’t need to bet on which inventories to grow. Rather, we can create a strategic digital reserve with state-of-the-art designs for the things that are vital to national response and the backbone of our economy: everything from medical devices to electronics to vaccines. Applied to the semiconductor shortage, we can now create digital models of not only chips and electronics, but also automated, state-of-the-art assembly processes and, yes, even the supply chains themselves.
This is our chance to reinvent complex systems—and there are two important steps we should take to move this forward.
First, we need to build capacity in our industrial base and in our supply chain to localize additional production closer to the point of demand. By combining the digital twin with the latest technologies such as 3D printing, a new generation of smart factories could rapidly manufacture designs from a digital reserve and distribute the products where they’re needed.
A prime place for these investments is in our organic industrial base, a network of two dozen domestic manufacturing sites run by the Department of Defense that are located across the country to support our armed forces. What if we brought these factories into the digital age and expanded their mission to support national preparedness?
Second, let’s forge new partnerships between business and government to accelerate more technology projects that increase supply chain resilience and speed to need. That’s what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now doing by showcasing a new digital model for regulatory review. Instead of long PDF files, medical device manufacturers will be able to submit a digital twin showing the exact production process, components, and performance of their products. The detailed information combined with streamlined processes will help the FDA significantly speed up reviews to get lifesaving devices and vaccines out to the public faster.
One way we can advance similar projects is by leveraging national manufacturing institutes and establishing more demonstration sites where government and industry leaders, particularly of small and medium-sized enterprises, can learn how digital twins can be incorporated into their own operations. To further scale deployment, the FDA headquarters will also house an advanced digital design and manufacturing line that medical device manufacturers can visit to witness the possibilities for transforming production.
The timing is right to bring digital twin deployment to the frontlines of retooling American industry and infrastructure. A new national infrastructure law is making historic investments in everything from our roads and bridges to our public transit, rail, buildings, grids, and factories. At the same time, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and other leaders are calling for federal efforts to reinvigorate the U.S. industrial base with targeted investments in research and development and in modernization projects that seed advanced manufacturing in America.
The Perseverance rover might never discover signs of previous life as it explores Mars’ surface, yet it delivers proof every day that the digital twin expands what’s humanly possible.
Now we just need more strategic partnerships between technology companies, manufacturers, and governments to deliver breakthroughs here on Earth.
Barbara Humpton is the President and CEO of Siemens USA.