Two Things to Know About Digital Twins

Posted to Esri in the Digital Utility Group
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Pat  Hohl's picture
Director - Electric Industry Solutions Esri

Pat Hohl, PE, is Esri's director of electric industry solutions. He was a pioneer in the use of GIS for electric utilities. He has over 35 years of experience in utility engineering, technology...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Jul 1, 2021

Talk of Digital Twins is popping up everywhere – with good reason. They are fantastic tools and desperately needed. My friend Dianne runs a small facility for a non-profit organization. Part of her responsibility is overseeing grounds maintenance. She is struggling with the irrigation system.

She needed to dig out the manual to make any adjustments with the old irrigation controller. This meant Dianne rarely made modifications. Then, a generous grant funded a brand new garden. It was a lovely upgrade – with a large assortment of colorful flowers and a new drip irrigation system.

The new system is more complex with three times more zones. Nonetheless, it is connected and operated with an app on her phone – no manual required! Basic adjustments like changing from low winter settings to high summer settings are thankfully straightforward.

However, when one plant started dying and needed more water – that was difficult. You see, the contractor who installed the buried lines is long gone. And documentation of the complicated arrangement is severely lacking. If a particular plant needs more water – where is it concerning the irrigation zones? Nobody knows.

The consequence? Dianne cranked up every zone by 50% -- inefficient, but it did add more water!

Dianne would prefer to optimize the system, not wastefully flood the entire garden for the sake of one dry plant. However, she's not a sprinkler expert; she needs better information to guide her. With good information and a meaningful interface, she could precisely increase the water only in the zone that supplies the troubled plant. Point to the plant – that one. Increase water – click!

A Digital Twin of the system would be perfect. It would show the details of zones and plants by location. It would also present them in a usable fashion. Consequently, the human-in-the-loop makes decisions without getting lost in the weeds of underlying details.

In reality, Dianne isn't getting a sprinkler Digital Twin anytime soon. However, her plight is not unlike an electric system of exploding complexity, shifting needs, and new digital systems.

Digital Twin for Utilities

Utility staff also struggle with increasing complexity. They require better information and interfaces to optimize their work. Digital Twins can help.

A Digital Twin is a virtual representation of the real world -- including physical objects, processes, relationships, and behaviors. For example, a sprinkler zone representation including flowers in their location fits the definition. Using the correct electric network data can also be a type of Digital Twin - a digital simulation of the physical assets. A comprehensive system model helps provide a robust understanding of the entire electric system – supporting vital workflows.

Every utility workflow is getting more complex. The addition of so many things like AMI, DERs, ADMS, and the connected mobile workforce means workflows need enriched underpinning. Employees must consider greater equipment detail, intricate connectivity, interdependencies, and multiple energy sources to make decisions. For example, looking up last year's peak load on a feeder is no longer adequate to make real-time judgments.

Historically, many electric system determinations have been very conservative – not necessarily optimal. This is because of their basis in somewhat generalized system modeling concepts. Unfortunately, these old-fashioned practices do not allow utilities to achieve their current goals. A Digital Twin is an advanced framework to align a utility's digital infrastructure with emerging technologies.

Two Things to Know about Digital Twins

  1. Utilizing a detailed electric system model enables a Digital Twin. Such a tool is a step forward from the straightforward facility mapping models of the past. Many utilities report their GIS contains the most complete network connectivity information. As a result, it is the ideal foundation upon which to build. The ArcGIS Utility Network was designed in response to utilities' input, modeling entire networks at a level of detail that was never before possible.
  2. Many forms of Digital Twins have been used for years. CAD, 3D visualizations, and distribution analysis programs are familiar examples. However, because of their specialized applications, they often exist in silos and do not integrate well. Using location as a common denominator, ArcGIS devours all kinds of data – including Digital Twins. ArcGIS can incorporate many different representations of the built and natural environments uniting them in a blended Digital Twin.

Wrap Up

Dianne's fictitious Digital Twin would be even more helpful if it accepted real-time weather inputs to optimize irrigation further. Likewise, real-time feeds of operational and environmental data increase the usefulness of utility Digital Twins. Because they present a complete picture, such tools allow utilities to optimize and achieve their modernization objectives. ArcGIS does just that.

To learn more about the ArcGIS Utility Network and its unique business value download our latest industry paper.

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Julian Jackson's picture
Julian Jackson on Jul 15, 2021

Thanks Pat! I really liked your analogy. Most non-techy people can understand gardening and sprinkler systems better than discussions about AI and suchlike. I hope someone will create an app for this - it sounds like there is a niche in the market!

But more seriously, as we end up with greater numbers of DERs and more hydrogen or battery devices attached to the grid we will surely need "user friendly" digital twin apps so managers of relatively simple systems - say rooftop solar on an office building - can access this sort of simulation for better performance.  Is that something ArcGIS can deliver or is contemplating in future?

Pat  Hohl's picture
Pat Hohl on Jul 15, 2021

Thank you Julian for your kind words. We are working on this as we integrate BIM building information with other data in digital twins. I hope you find this article interesting.

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Jul 20, 2021

Good explanation. Legacy systems served a purpose but the recent advances, like cloud, AI, and IoT, added so much more ability and flexibility to computer systems. As a result, users can enter information much more easily than in the past. Consequently, they will spend the time needed to click a few screens but in the past, would not fumble through complex input pages. 

Robert Brook's picture
Robert Brook on Feb 10, 2022

Hi Pat... interesting post. Do you have any examples of locations where a utility connected the rich asset content housed within their GIS with a "real" Digital Twin? By real I mean one that has a content model based on physics and engineering algorithms, so it looks and acts like field equipment (you move a pole and equipment rotates precisely) as opposed to ones that is simply a visual representation? If so, what were the benefits? Thanks!

Pat  Hohl's picture
Thank Pat for the Post!
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