The built environment is inherently complex, varied and unpredictable. This has, arguably, made it harder to digitally transform the more “controlled” environments like modern factories. But now, major advances in cyber physical technologies, combined with a blurring of industry dividing lines are opening up massive opportunities for digital change.
One of most exciting areas of change is the emergence of so-called “digital twins”. These are virtual representations of actual physical assets, where the digital twin is updated over time to accurately reflect the real thing. For example, a digital twin of a section of rail track would be updated as the track was maintained, or if there was an issue with any signalling equipment.
Digital twins build on a host of existing technologies and initiatives. They can be seen as a natural evolution of Building Information Modelling (BIM) which is already starting to digitally represent the built environment. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors provide essential data to help turn digital models into dynamic, up-to-date twins. As this data grows in volume and complexity, analytics and artificial intelligence are increasingly important to connect and interpret this data, so that it can improve decision-making.
Organizations that design, build and maintain assets can test ideas in the twin before they do anything with the real life asset. This saves costs and reduces the risk of things going wrong in the physical world. Questions such as, “what if we doubled the frequency of trains on that stretch of track?” or “what if we upgrade the HVAC (Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) equipment in one of our buildings?” can be run through the digital model first.
Digital twins become even more powerful when they can be used to predict what happens next. Analysis in the model could indicate when signalling equipment is likely to fail, or when the doors in a train carriage need to be maintained. The potential benefits extend throughout the lifecycles of physical assets in the built environment and include:
Better decisions about the type, scale and timing of assets needed (e.g. when do we need a new power plant, or a new stretch of road)
Better decisions about when to maintain or replace assets
Improving safety and mitigating other risks (for example, combining digital twins with virtual reality (VR) for virtual walkthroughs of tunnels and tunnelling equipment)
Greater efficiency from design to maintain, including increased productivity of workforces and reduced wastage of building materials
Improving the services, like utilities and transport, that depend on physical infrastructure
The prize could be substantial. IDC have estimated that digital twins could deliver innovation and productivity gains of up to 25% for G2000 companies by 2021 While McKinsey point to a $1.6 trillion global productivity shortfall in construction – digital twins and transformation have a big role to play in closing this gap with other industries.
One of the greatest challenges of creating digital twins is the sheer complexity of the task. A comprehensive digital twin, spanning the entire built environment would need to include millions of individual assets and a wealth of associated data.
For example, if a construction business creates a digital twin of a single building, this still needs to be usable by sub-contractors, IoT device manufacturers and facilities managers – all of whom would use the twin in different ways and need to connect it with ever wider sets of data.
From our discussions with leading players in this space, some of the main challenges are likely to include:
Common understanding of digital twins, backed by common language
Commercial and contractual models
Security and privacy
Interoperability, including data models and APIs
Changing behaviours to encourage new, digitally enabled, practices
Is it happening already?
Digital twins might conjure the idea of a sci-fi future filled with fantastically complex avatars. In fact, the term has been in use since the early 2000’s and some trace its origins back to NASA and the use of physical twins that teams on the ground could use to test and fix problems experienced by spacecraft in flight.
Many organizations are already starting to create digital twins of their assets. Some manufacturers in particular, see digital twins as being central to the digital transformation of their businesses, services and supply chains.
There is also an increasing interest from the built environment sector. Specifiers, architects, engineers, construction firms, asset owners and operators are all interested in using digital twins to increase efficiency and improve the quality of services throughout asset lifecycles. The “Data for the Public Good” report from the National Infrastructure Commission went a step further and called for the creation of a national digital twin – which might, in the end, become a way of connecting the individual twins created by a host of private and public sector organizations.
The role of best practice
Right now, there is lots of fantastic innovation around digital twins. This has the potential to unleash tremendous benefits but only if the different twins and their underlying data and technologies can work together.
Connecting stakeholders across the value chain to agree a shared view of “what good looks like”, commercially and technologically, is an essential part of realising the anticipated benefits of digital twins.