The concept of Digital Twins is rapidly gaining pace in the construction industry. Its multiple applications for infrastructure and building assets could be the biggest revolution for the sector after BIM. This article will explore what Digital Twins is about and how it is set to transform construction as we know it.
Everything started with the Internet of Things
The concept of Digital Twin was born after the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is a system of interconnected computing devices. The innovative part is that these devices can transfer data and information between themselves without any human interaction. The typical example used to describe the IoT is that your fridge could be connected to your online supermarket account and add carrots to the basket when you’re running low. Nobody doubts that a clever fridge could be ‘one giant leap for humankind’. However, Digital Twins have much more impressive capabilities.
A Digital Twin is a digital replica of a physical entity. The physical entity could be living or non-living. In fact, Digital Twins are also gaining track in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector. In a not-too-far-away future, you could potentially have your own Digital Twin. For this article, however, we will focus on non-living Digital Twins. These can represent physical assets (infrastructure or a building), but also processes, places, systems and devices.
The difference between a BIM model and a Digital Twin
At this point you may be thinking, ‘is my 3D BIM model not a Digital Twin then?’ The answer is no. There are two main characteristics that define a Digital Twin – differentiating them from the 3D BIM models we are used to working with. The first one is that the Digital Twin must be connected to its physical counterpart (Physical Twin). The second one is that such a connection is established by generating real-time data through sensors. So, chances are, your BIM model is not connected with sensors to its physical counterpart. Therefore, it’s not a Digital Twin.
With such technology in place, the Digital Twin can, in theory, update itself automatically to represent the real status of the physical counterpart in real-time. The Digital Twin also learns thanks to AI. It can learn from the sensors placed on the Physical Twin, but also from engineers and other experts, from similar machines and from other environments of which it may be part of. This is one of the biggest revolutions in Digital Twins. They evolve as the physical asset they represent evolves.
UK government committed to Digital Built Britain
Gartner, one of the world’s leading research and advisory company, predicts that by 2021, half of the large industrial companies will use Digital Twins. The UK National Infrastructure Commission published a report named ‘Data for the public good‘ in December 2017. This report included a recommendation to develop a ‘National Digital Twin’. The report stated that in 2014 alone, BIM had saved the construction industry £840 million. The UK government responded to this report by committing to creating a digital economy through ‘Digital Built Britain‘.
Digital Twins in construction
Industry experts in the construction sector see many advantages in this technology. Digital Twins would be extremely useful during the lifecycle of projects, especially for the operation and maintenance phases. Digital Twins in construction could help at reducing costs, improving the efficiency of operations and maintenance activities, avoiding future costs and improving overall asset value.
Imagine a building asset for example. The Digital Twin would be a perfect 3D representation of such a building. That 3D model could be delivered through a mix of BIM modelling and drone laser scanning, to ensure it precisely represents the real asset. There would also be a connection between both twins with many sensors. You could be sitting anywhere with your laptop and access the Digital Twin through the cloud. Then, you could check the temperature and humidity at different points in the building. Finally, you could adjust the air conditioning and see in real-time how the temperature inside the building adjusts.
Thanks to even more sensors, the Digital Twin could highlight to you the fact that a light fitting needs replacing. It could also send you a reminder that the elevator is due for safety inspection next month. With one click, you could get the entire maintenance history of any element in the building. And the list goes on ad infinitum!
Check out a Digital Twin by yourself!
If the concept is still not clear enough, check out this Digital Twin demo that Autodesk has created. I must admit, it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen recently. In the demo, you have access to the Digital Twin of a turbine engine. You can play around with the 3D model, making sections of it, exploding it to see its internal components, etc. And we could do all of that with our BIM models. What’s more impressive, thanks to the Digital Twin you can:
- Access real-time heatmaps of the model.
- See the engine speed and vibrations, also in real-time.
- Check the current and historical temperature of any engine part.
- Access the history of revisions and issues.
- Review each part’s maintenance manual.
- See the inventory purchases for all engine parts.
Imagine having such a Digital Twin in your construction projects. How easy life would be! Good news is you don’t have to wait anymore. There are already solutions in the market that allow you to have a Digital Twin of your assets. Of course, technology will continue to develop, and we will soon see extra capabilities that we cannot imagine right now. There’s a bright future for the digital transformation of the construction industry.
How do you think a Digital Twin would help you on your construction projects? Let us know in the comments!