Digital Twins Answer The Question, “What If?”

Big ideas and practical realities are often at odds when developing new product features.


Anyone who has purchased consumer electronics understands that each new version of a device will include new features and enhanced functionality that persuade customers to upgrade their old devices. The tantalizing promise of ‘new and improved’ performance is something that marketers like me home in on and leverage as competitor differentiation. Episode 5 of the Source De[Code] podcast explores how digital twins are aiding design teams in addressing the challenges they face in making potential performance upgrades a reality.

Balancing big ideas with real-world practicality

This episode made me pause and reflect on how little consideration I have given to the substantial efforts that go into developing those features that are so cavalierly marketed by those in my profession. In marketing, we focus on the end result without taking into account the significant effort that goes into making good on the promises we sell. As well, I was drawing parallels between the campaign planning that I do and the process of determining which ‘new and improved’ features are feasible.

In marketing, you begin with a goal, useful templates built from previous campaigns, ample historical data, and a wealth of great ideas. The challenge comes when we are trying to balance the excitement of brainstorming with reality. Time, resource constraints, partner and vendor considerations, and team capacity require limiting the scope of marketing activities in ways that force you to set aside brilliant ideas in favor of realistic, actionable ones.

Like marketing campaigns, big ideas and practical realities are often at odds when developing new product features. Consumers are uncompromising in their expectations of ‘new and improved’; we want new features and functionality without losing any of the upgrades present in previous generations. Business leaders have equally high expectations. In order to maintain a competitive edge and grow market share, business leaders push for more innovation delivered to market faster. This results in unforgiving demands on the design and development teams responsible for ensuring the ‘new and improved’ features are realistic, practical, and will work as consumers expect and the market demands.

What if you could have it all?

Consumers and decision-makers have the luxury of asking “what if” when considering new innovation. These “what ifs” are a source of consternation for the development teams responsible for implementing the required system changes that will enable that functionality. New features being added to existing architectures must work seamlessly with legacy systems and components. Moreover, these upgrades must work without sacrificing appreciated elements like battery life and system speed. Navigating the delicate balance of business needs and consumer expectations is a universal challenge for developers– and one that digital twins are helping them manage.

In the same way that marketers use previous activities to make educated assumptions about upcoming campaign performance, developers use simulation tools to visualize prototypes digitally. Like the marketing assumptions, these simulations do not adequately account for external influences and behaviors that impact the product’s performance in real-world scenarios. Simulations are, as episode guest Dr. Ian Rippke points out, “always considered an approximation step towards the end product, not a true representation of behavior.” Only when the campaign or product goes live can you correctly measure the accuracy of the assumptions made during the design phase.

As Robert Brown opined in his poem, ‘To A Mouse,’ “the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley.” Even the best plan can’t account for every circumstance. Simulation tools only allow developers to view the prototype digitally, but not to see how the product will interact with its physical environment.

‘What if’ becomes ‘what is’ with digital twins

The ability to predict how a campaign will perform amidst shifts in future consumer sentiment, events, and external influences would ensure the success of each campaign. It would allow us to weigh more “what ifs” in the design phase and be more strategic in determining the marketing mix that would best achieve the defined goals. It sounds like a dream come true. For development teams, digital twins can make this dream a reality.

Digital twins connect simulation models with the immense amounts of data collected in the physical domain to create a feedback loop that continuously informs the digital model with data. Digital twins can leverage AI and machine learning to predict how external factors like user behavior and supply chain fluctuations will impact delivery deadlines and the performance of the components and systems in the product.

Digital twin software enables teams to explore different architectures, applications, and interoperability dynamics between components and systems. Digital twins also account for external complexities and stakeholders involved in the development process. This untethers design teams from the constraints of the unknown and empowers them to explore the “what-ifs” that would be impossible to consider with physical prototypes and simulation tools alone.

These models improve designs and increase confidence in the end product because they build accurate representations of systems and the improved ability to predict real-world performance. They enable design and development teams to better visualize how the big ideas and planned performance improvements will impact the overall design without the need for additional lab work. This, in turn, allows for the faster delivery of innovation to market that businesses depend on for continued market dominance and ensure that customer expectations are met or even exceeded. Dr. Rippke summarized this concept succinctly and with poetic elegance in the podcast. With digital twins, he said, design teams “are not constrained by what they can test. They are constrained only by what they can imagine.”

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