Digital twins: bridging the physical and virtual worlds


Digital twins are dynamic virtual replicas of physical objects, processes and systems that enable risk-free testing and prototyping, improved efficiency, productivity, and safety, as well as accelerated time-to-market.


As virtual laboratories, digital twins enable forecasting and predictive maintenance to reduce downtime, waste and costs while promoting greater efficiency in supply chains and effective remote collaboration that reduces the need for carbon-intensive travel.


The product of innovation in connectivity, cloud computing, AI, and remote sensing, digital twins rely on a constantly updated flow of real-world data to synchronize with their physical counterparts.

Jon Gamble, Ericsson, Imagine Studio, asks you to imagine a digital world beyond the screen.

The takeaway

Digital twins improve productivity, safety and quality, and support sustainability targets by removing travel requirements and wastage

Digital twins play an important role in Ericsson's factories, reducing unplanned downtime by around 50% 

The global digital twin market is predicted to be worth US$48.2 billion by 2026

Lead times from ‘survey complete’ to ‘design complete’ for antenna/site installation are reduced by 50%

Digital twins will create a ‘cyber-physical continuum’ which means events in either reality will influence the other, blurring the distinction between the virtual and the real

Digital twins give us the power to see what’s around the corner.

A composite illustration showing the efficiencies that can come with using digital twins

Virtual replicas of real life will enable individuals to create simulations of places, objects and systems, and experiment with them without risk or disruption.

Imagine you’re a wind turbine engineer who wants to try a new design. Better to test this in a virtual world than on an object which is in a remote location, right? What if you’re responsible for a series of remote factories, and you want to compare how each is performing? It would be incredibly useful to visit every site without leaving your desk, wouldn’t it?

Digital twins offer a testbed, or a virtual viewpoint, to explore the impact of changes or improvements before you commit to them in the real world. Now you see why they’re so exciting.

It is only recently that this technology has become usable on a broad scale, due to the convergence of technologies, including 5G, sensors, and extended reality devices becoming more widespread. That said, in the 1960s NASA introduced duplicate systems for space missions, to test the equipment in a controlled environment, and finally to support the launch of Apollo 13 in 1970. It wasn’t until 1992 when David Gelernter, in his book, Mirror Worlds (Oxford University Press, USA), outlined a broader view of what could be possible by describing a future in which computer systems are interconnected, and the images they created could be interacted with to control the real world.

The actual concept of digital twins is credited to Dr. Michael Grieves who, in 2002, introduced it through his research into product lifecycle management. Since then, steps to make digital twins a reality have already allowed the visualization and automation of complex systems in places such as ports and factories. It is predicted that this will be one of the most promising technological trends, with a potential global market value of US$48bn by 2026 (source: MarketsandMarkets).

Modelling and simulation

But what defines a digital twin? If you were to do an internet search, there is an overwhelming variety of definitions. For example, a digital twin can be defined as software representation of assets and processes, which is enhanced with capabilities that are not present in the real-world entity. Or, more briefly, it is described as a virtual copy of something, and processes associated with it, that can be used to predict or interact with reality.

In the simplest terms, think of entering a virtual replica of your living room, everything is exactly where you know it but in a digital format. When a family member switches the TV on at home the digital equivalent in your virtual room would also switch on almost in real time—in other words, actions can be transferred between the two different realities. Having the ability to replicate many physical elements in a virtual world that constantly adapt and learn based on real-world events is the basis of a digital twin.

It’s also important to distinguish a digital twin from a simulation—they do share common characteristics, but also some important differences.

Simulations are created by the imagination of the designer, who will use them to analyze the cause and effect of different scenarios, mostly offline. In most cases, a simulation is a snapshot of a one-time task, which is then used to support design and analysis studies. Digital twins, on the other hand, are driven by timely synchronization of information between the real and virtual worlds, and therefore adapt with changes in either world. Simulations are predominantly theoretical, whereas digital twins are specific and actual.

Similarly, digital twins share some similarities with metaverses—they’re digital spaces where people can interact virtually. But once again, metaverses are built from the ground up by developers and, typically, represent virtual realms (such as a futuristic landscape or a fairytale castle), whereas digital twins live and die by data (for example, through constant transfer to and from virtual and physical spaces) to create a replica of the real world. You may think of a digital twin as a reflection of the real world, which is regularly updated to keep the two worlds synchronized, while the worlds represented in a metaverse may have no or partial resemblance to the real world.

Digital twins have four primary characteristics:

  1. Data models and data structures to represent the observations, state, and relations of the real-world objects of interest.
  2. Transfer of data from the real-world objects to create the digital twin. Typically, this is done continuously to enable an accurate and up-to-date view in the twin.
  3. Data analytic tools to unlock the capabilities and insights of the digital twin. This could be a simple data retrieval from one or more sensors to complex algorithms used to predict future behavior, simulate different scenarios and other analytics tasks.
  4. Techniques to interact with the twin through different APIs, GUIs, or other human interfaces. The insights from these are used to make better decisions in the real world, either directly or by actuation through the digital twin.

With such a broad range of capabilities, there are numerous different applications and types of digital twins that can be created and evolved over time, starting with the simplest element of a major system such as a temperature sensor or a flow detector. As a number of different components are combined, digital twins evolve further to provide insights to show how they interact with each other or new information not available by looking at each component individually. For example, when there is a full digital representation of a specific location, the digital twin has the capacity to indicate how to improve productivity, quality, and safety.

In every case, the digital twin can be accessed regardless of location, and in collaboration with others. Limitless connectivity between different digital twins will enable learning between systems and provide further insights from, for example, other locations or similar industrial segments.

Digital twins and industry

Much of the current research within Ericsson has been prompted by the increasing interest in realizing the full potential of mobile connectivity in the ongoing digital transformation. There is an overwhelming consensus that digital twins play a major role in this transformation. Within our own factory in Texas, and as part of our own digital transformation program, a digital twin of the Surface Mount Assembly (SMA) line led to a 50% decrease in unplanned downtime and a 30% reduction in waste.

In partnership with the Port of Livorno, Italy, Ericsson used digital twins to examine how technological innovation could optimize operations, and to identify what economic, social, and financial benefits could be realized. This was achieved through continuous monitoring of the port activities through cameras, GPS, and other sensors attached to objects. Changes made in the real word as a result of this exercise have had a measurable impact:

  • It is estimated that the time for vessel operation completion has reduced by 13% and forklift usage by 17%, which has led to a reduction in carbon emissions of more than 8%.
  • Cost savings are estimated at around US$60m per year for this mid-sized port cargo terminal.
  • The Port of Livorno study also gave strong evidence that 13 direct and indirect benefits relating to environmental sustainability and personnel safety were achieved as a direct consequence of greater connectivity.
  • Assets and performance trends can be monitored across the entire site, to allow for predictive, proactive, and, in some cases, remote maintenance.

In car manufacturing, digital twins have been used to enable greater collaboration between design, engineering, and manufacturing teams—based in different locations across the world—to accelerate the pace of development.

For a consortium of BT, Ericsson, NVIDIA, and Hyperbat (a vehicle battery manufacturer), 3D life-size replicas of devices are visualized on the factory floor, enabling people to work on them in a shared, virtual, and controlled space. This has enabled Hyperbat to build efficiency into its manufacturing processes, while also removing complexities as a result of different teams using different products and project management systems.

Urho Konttori, Founder and CTO of Varjo, a leading-edge headset manufacturer, has seen immense benefits for his teams.

"Teams no longer feel like satellites to the main office or factory, but are a singular item, fully connected within a common virtual space, negating the need for business travel."

Urho Konttori, Founder and CTO, Varjo

Urho Konttori, Varjo CTO, discusses the challenges of manufacturing human-eye-quality headsets.

Benefits observed across various industry segments

Risk ManagementScenario modelling, forecasting, decision making
Improved ProductivityPerformance analysis, reduced downtime
Predicative MaintenanceReliability, reduced costs
Remote CollaborationDesign customisation, reduced need for business travel
Real-time monitoringImproved customer service, enhanced product insights during lifecycle, more efficient supply chain
Remote operationsNew techniques to support critical mission operations (requiring very low latency) remotely, increased employee safety

What's next?

As more devices and applications are connected, and more industries and businesses use digital twins, the possibilities of connecting systems become limitless.

In parallel, the collective potential incorporating AI algorithms with digital twins will become increasingly important to the industry, providing new techniques and solutions for all kinds of applications or services. To achieve this, however, the demands on the networks will be raised even further due to the volume and frequency of data transfer.

In some cases, when there is not sufficient data to draw from, digital twins could be considered as gaining further intelligence and have the ability to be trained. In these cases, AI algorithms would be used so that the decision-making of the digital twin can continue and compensate for any limitations linked to the location of the sensors or the network.

For now, there is still some work to be done to raise awareness of the potential of what digital twins can offer. A recent Industry Lab report from Ericsson shows that awareness of the benefits that digital twins can offer is “the capability that manufacturers were least aware of”, although those that have introduced them immediately see the benefits.

Discover how digital twins are making the construction industry and medical learning more effective.

A peek into the future

Network performance and customer satisfaction



Ericsson’s role in making digital twins an integral part of industry and society

In the near future, digital twins will influence most aspects of our life in some way. Ericsson is therefore constantly exploring how it can work with others to create specialized solutions, and to determine how digital twins will become part of an evolved network architecture.

Ericsson also has an active role in industry collaborations and helps to spearhead consistent standards in vocabulary, architecture, security, and interoperability of digital-twin technology. Specifically, Ericsson is focused on five areas:




Cognitive networks



The evolution of digital twins over the coming years will merge what is possible in the two different realities toward a cyber-physical continuum, allowing the actions of each world to influence the other. The opportunities seem truly boundless as the two worlds constantly monitor, learn from each other, and then adapt.

In every respect, some form of a digital twin will influence you, the place you work and even the world around you.

Jon Gamble, Ericsson, Imagine Studio, discusses how we can build on our existing digital reality with gamechanging technology.

A vision of 2030


Giulio Bottari - Master Researcher

Giulio Bottari

Master Researcher

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