Reading Time: 3 minutes

One of the keynote speakers at this year’s RAILcph conference was Lars Barfoed, Public Affairs Director at Primetime and former MP and Minister for Transport. He is a political and strategic advisor for several organizations within the transport sector and chairman for Energinet.

Barfoed has previously expressed that he believes that if we are to succeed in creating sustainable mobility in the future, we must combine investments in the physical infrastructure with investment in IT. This view correlates with the principle of a ‘digital twin’ – but what is it really?

The concept of the digital twin was first introduced to the world in 2002. Since then it has increasingly become relevant to both system engineering and model-based system engineering (MBSE). The common understanding is that a digital twin is a dynamic digital representation of a physical system. It might be confused with a virtual prototype, but unlike this, a digital twin is a virtual instance of a physical system (a twin). It is continually updated with the physical system’s performance, maintenance, and health status data throughout the system’s life cycle. The digital twin can become part of the system itself, enhancing the original functionality of the product. In other words: a digital twin connects the real world with the virtual world.

The impact of digital twins in the railway industry

NASA was the first to apply the principle behind ‘digital twin’ to its industrial requirements for the Apollo mission. The notion of a digital twin is still to this day widely used in the aerospace industry. However, many other industries have opened their eyes towards the technology – including the railway industry.

Railroad switches are one of the most critical and costly components in the rail infrastructure, and they are crucial to guarantee safety and undisturbed operation. They are also responsible for a high amount of the operational costs: up to 30 percent of the annual maintenance budget is spent to maintain and renew switches and crossings. The interaction of a railway switch and its switch point is complex, and it can be difficult to predict their future behavior. The use of a digital twin promises an efficient and cost-effective extension of switch point systems. By capturing data via sensors, the digital twin connects railway assets and their operational technology (OT) systems to an IT environment. This enables it to monitor performance, deterioration, and failure as well as location and safety compliance. The digital twin is, therefore, able to monitor, manage and maintain railway assets.

However, creating a digital twin of a physical entity such as a switch point there are a few things to keep in mind during the process. Integration of product design is crucial. Because it is missing engineering knowledge, a clone created with IT and OT convergence to forecast failures, degradation of assets, etc. is not complete. In order to assess the overall condition of the entire system, including information from design and manufacturing, engineering technology (ET) must be included in the convergence. If the digital twin is going to succeed in making accurate health assessments or determine unexpected or unknown asset behaviors, the integration of asset information must be available throughout the entire life-cycle.

Entering the new age of designing infrastructure

Despite a few challenges, models that compromise engineering knowledge and data collected from the field will soon play a vital part in the digitalization of the world. Hybrid models such as digital twins are more than 3D systems; it is a technique that offers a complete, comprehensive and real-time system vision. They can be used to simplify the interaction between projects, and they can detect potential conflicts between different infrastructure objects. Digital twins will have a great impact on the railway industry and are synonymous with radical changes within the industry. They will radicalize the way we think, act and design our future infrastructure.

Interested to learn more about digital twins? Review the sources below

Galar, Diego (2018) – The Creation of Railway Digital Twins Through the Convergence of IT and OT

Gartner (2019) – Gartner Survey Reveals Digital Twins Are Entering Mainstream Use

Madni, A., Madni, C., & Lucero, S. (2019) – Leveraging Digital Twin Technology in Model-Based Systems Engineering

Rosen, R., Boschert, S., & Sohr, A. (2018) – Next Generation Digital Twin

SNCF (n.d.) – The Digital Twin

Follow us on LinkedIn: