TECH | Sep 4, 2020

Digital Twin: 3 areas of application in the healthcare sector

Luigi Manca, Head of Engineering’s Digital Twin Practice, talks about the advantages of using the Digital Twin

“In a world steeped in complexity and moving ever faster, the Digital Twin is a very powerful tool to manage both aspects in many contexts, as it is not just a simple simulation tool to support decision makers”. Luigi Manca, Head of Digital Twin Practice di Engineering, underlines right away what distinguishes a Digital Twin from instruments that already existed in the past.

“A Digital Twin” – continues Manca – “today gives the possibility of digitally reproducing both a process and a real product, and to feed it with current data in order to verify in real time the effects of certain decisions before implementing them. In practice it is a tool which does not limit itself to understanding how a certain situation could evolve in the future, but allows testing the effects generated by certain decisions in real time, “speculating about the future” through simulation, thus allowing decision makers to create these decisions or to react better and in real time to the occurrence of certain events”.

This technology, included by Gartner among the 10 Top Strategic Technology Trends that will change the way we work and do business, is in short, a reality. Not only in the industrial sector.

What are the most common areas of application?

As also described in white paper “Digital Twin – A digital copy of reality that enables you to simulate and find answers in a risk free and secure environment”, there are several companies which today exploit the opportunities of the Digital Twin.

There are examples of its use in the manufacturing sector, where it allows significantly increasing control over the evolution of how products are designed, manufactured and maintained, perfectly fitting in and amplifying the advantages of an Industry 4.0 context; in transport, where it is also possible to create virtual models of cars, trains or other connected vehicles in order to capture behavioral and operational data and to analyze and improve their overall performance; in infrastructures, where both complex transit flows and actual structures can be replicated; in retail, where Digital Twins can play a key role in improving customer experience by creating behavioral copies of customers and testing the effectiveness of possible marketing campaigns. There is clearly no lack of examples of applications in the Smart City field.

“Even to deal with the COVID emergency, Digital Twin can make a difference in several areas” – explains Manca. “For example, it is possible to create a Digital Twin with which we can measure and manage the effects of the introduction of rules concerning distancing, on elements such as productivity or cycle time, and to reconfigure the line in order to minimize the negative effects of these rules whilst also reducing the risk of possible contacts between staff. Or, again, in railway stations in order to decide not only where to place security gates but also how to open them during the different daily time slots, so as to avoid gatherings”.

Examples of Digital Twin in the healthcare sector

“For years we have been working in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry with several important companies which have adopted the Digital Twin with tangible advantages in relation to the great complexity of the problems faced. Particularly in the pharmaceutical sector, not only in research but also in the supply chain, Digital Twins really make a difference” – underlines Luigi Manca. “To give an example which is currently very topical, years ago we applied the Digital Twin to the production of influenza vaccines”.

Vaccine Supply Chain

“Not only the vaccine production, but also its distribution is very complex” – esplains Manca. “Influenza vaccines are produced and distributed differently in the two hemispheres, north and south, where the seasons are reversed. This forces pharmaceutical companies to manage the entire production and distribution process very rigorously, not only in order to meet all requests, but also to keep production and distribution costs as low as possible.

In this case, the Digital Twin helps to respond to needs such as: how to satisfy demand in different countries around the world? How will stock availability evolve in the different months of the year? How to deal with additional requests which may originate from agreements with other countries? When to resort to external suppliers because requests cannot be met? A tool like the Digital Twin not only provides forecasts, but, based on real data, helps to make the best possible decision, maximizing production capacity”.

Distribution of vaccines during pandemics

“If the Digital Twin is so strategic as to be able to identify the best configuration of all the critical levers (internal or external) which govern the vaccine supply chain system, as well as to produce the largest number of doses possible in the shortest time possible, it goes without saying that its application can even become vital in the event of a pandemic” – spiega Manca.

“Here at Engineering we have developed a simulation model which can reproduce, in a virtual environment, the behavior of the end-to-end supply chain and react to changes of the main levers just as the real system would. The model is designed to automatically adapt production capacity over time, possibly relying on pre-identified external suppliers, according to the volumes to be produced, and also considering the non-trivial ethical issues which the production and distribution of such a precious commodity entail. This provides the decision maker with important information on the reactivity and affordability of existing pandemic production plans. The problem to be faced in this case is stochastic as there are many uncertain variables influencing it, such as, just to name a few, the declaration of a pandemic situation, the date of availability of the isolated pathogen reagent, the availability of what is needed to produce the vaccine, the absence of personnel which, in the event of an influenza pandemic, can increase up to 50% or any equipment failures and maintenance procedures that affect the vaccine doses which can be delivered. Complex problems that are answered with an equally complex technology, able to help people to identify the optimal solution”.

Simulations of the effects of medicinal products on patients

“Another front on which we have been engaged for some time” – continues Luigi Manca – “is that of cellular simulations of some medicinal products which cure certain diseases. In this case the tests, obviously in the pre-clinical phase and for research purposes, are carried out on virtual patients who comply with certain characteristics and thus allow studying the effect of a certain medicine, not only during the current moment, but simulating future evolutions”.


Sonia Montegiove