Digital Twins in the AEC industry: Should you believe the Hype?

By John Turner, VP of Innovative Solutions, Gafcon Inc, San Diego

John Turner, VP of Innovative Solutions, Gafcon Inc, San Diego
John Turner, VP of Innovative Solutions, Gafcon Inc, San Diego
If you work in the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry you will have been bombarded recently with a constant flow of Digital Twin related hype.
I’ll focus on three key questions:
• What is a Digital Twin?
• Why should you be interested?
• What action should you take?
What is a Digital Twin?
The Digital Twin Consortium recently published the following definition:
A digital twin is a virtual representation of real-world entities and processes, synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity.
• Digital twin systems transform business by accelerating holistic understanding, optimal decision-making, and effective action.
• Digital twins use real-time and historical data to represent the past and present and simulate predicted futures.
• Digital twins are motivated by outcomes, tailored to use cases, powered by integration, built on data, guided by domain knowledge, and implemented in IT/OT systems.
It is important to understand that a digital twin is not just a visual representation of something in the real world (such as a laser scan or satellite imagery), it can be any type of representational model, from a CAD/BIM file to an IoT data fed to a knowledge graph. It can also be a mathematical model to simulate the physical world or a process flow model.
Unless the digital twin you have chosen to implement is totally self-contained – which would be unusual – it will have to:
• Be populated with data flowing from upstream or previous time phases in the digital lifecycle;
• Communicate with other systems within the same phase of the digital lifecycle;
• Pass data to downstream systems, which are systems that require the data in a later time phase of the digital lifecycle.
As a result it is likely that your organization will have multiple digital twins provided by different participants in the AEC value chain. The priority then, is to link the data flows between the different digital twins throughout the lifecycle of the built asset with a digital thread, a mechanism for correlating information across multiple dimensions of the virtual representation.
Why should you be interested?
In a presentation at the IoT World Solutions Congress in December of 2020, Salla Eckhardt from Microsoft Real Estate and Security identified eight interlocking perspectives which provide correlated data to drive new and profound insights into their building portfolio.
These eight components are:
1. The visualization and management of the 2D and 3D space;
2. Physical asset and equipment management;
3. Cost Management and the Total Cost of Ownership;
4. The Management of Documentation and Data to support the Property Portfolio;
5. The Management of the Dynamics of Occupation, or Internet of Activity (IoA);
6. Organizational Modeling and Insights;
7. Real Time Physical Performance and Control through the Internet of Things (IoT);
8. Historical Performance, Prediction and Improvement through correlation of data.
These improve the performance of the built space for their employees and indirectly lead to better acquisition and retention of talent. These perspectives are also a useful framework for compiling use cases and metrics for business value throughout the lifecycle of a built asset.
What Action Should you Take?
I recommend the following five steps to maximize the value and contain the cost of digital twin implementation.
1. Provide standards from an owner’s perspective
In order for systems to communicate effectively they need to have a common understanding of the data that is exchanged. This is normally done by means of BIM standards and guidelines and data standards with an accompanying data dictionary together with all the technical constraints that systems integration provides.
2. Identify opportunities to do once and deploy many times
Computers are very good at replicating and automating tasks. Identify all the tasks within the digital lifecycle and extract and build them in a form that enables reuse. This automation and reuse will provide the cost savings to cover the investment to implement other parts of the process, which will enable more cost savings, and so on.
3. Enable a digital thread through all processes and phases
Assess and understand all the components and processes that contribute to the value chain and package them in an integrated manner. Collaboration cannot flourish in a siloed organization but a requirement to implement a digital thread will quickly confront the silos and enable efficiencies in the organization. This is not just a technical exercise – it also requires a great deal of organizational change management.
4. Configure systems to support the digital thread
Implement systems to enable a digital thread and mitigate the risk of lost or misaligned data throughout the lifecycle of your facilities. The stakeholder best positioned to implement systems to support the digital thread and optimize collaboration between all parties and phases is the project owner.
5. Provide supervision to enable the digital thread
Every building or infrastructure project is brought to life under the watchful eye of a project or construction manager. Every operational building is cared for by a Facilities Manager. Why would a digital representation of that building or infrastructure project be any different? Appoint knowledgeable resources to manage the digital thread that enables the digital lifecycle and ensures success and a predictable return of investment in your digital twin.
Digital twins have the power to transform an organization. However, just like any advanced use of technology, it is necessary to put the basics in place first. Those in the industry with a data-centric approach, a building lifecycle focus and an appetite for innovation will find that stepping into the world of digital twins is very simple.