The notion of creating a Digital Twin of a built asset – a digital representation of a physical asset that's also connected to its physical twin to exchange real-time data – has been increasingly widely discussed in the past couple of years in the AEC sector, says Paul Wilkinson.
The term ‘digital twin’ was coined by Michael Grieves at the University of Michigan in 2002 in relation to the then emerging concept of product lifecycle management. Grieves proposed that a digital model of a physical system (a car, for example) could be created as a virtual entity on its own, containing information about the physical system, and be linked with the physical system through its entire lifecycle.
This connection is key. Without it, a digital representation could end up as an ‘as-built’ legacy model of the physical asset. Data needs to flow between the real and virtual space to keep the twins synchronised.
Development of the digital twin principle
Technology consultancy Gartner included ‘digital twins’ in its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends in 2017, and added impetus was created by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission’s Data for the Public Good report in December 2017.
This recommended a national digital twin, an information management framework, and a digital framework task group. These recommendations are being implemented through Cambridge’s Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), established as a successor of the UK BIM Task Force to lead the next stage in the UK construction industry’s digital evolution.
In November 2018, the CDBB’s digital framework task group, led by Mott MacDonald CTO Mark Enzer, published the Gemini Principles laying out the foundations for national digital twin development (followed by a roadmap in April 2019).
The Digital Twin Hub
The UK now has a Digital Twin Hub, an early-stage community currently focused on the data needs of a handful of major infrastructure providers (Sellafield is a participant).
And the CDBB is promoting a week of events, including, on Monday 9 September 2019, a ‘Digital Twin Day’ at the Institution of Civil Engineers in London, sponsored by Bentley Systems (a prominent advocate of ‘digital twin’ thinking).
CDBB defines digital twins as: “realistic digital representations of assets, processes or systems in the built or natural environment. Essentially, they enable better decision-making throughout the whole-life of assets and systems – their delivery, operation, maintenance and use.”
‘Digital twins’ and infrastructure construction
While individual digital twins are powerful aids to efficient asset development, they'll have greater potential if connected with other systems. Thus the aspiration is to develop a ‘national digital twin’ – an ecosystem of digital twins connected via securely shared data. In parallel, this aspiration also requires a transformation in how the architectural, engineering and construction sectors think and work digitally.
Digital twin approaches are a key development beyond BIM, and so the terminology is starting to change. Clients and project teams were once exhorted to achieve ‘BIM Level 2’ compliance with various processes, protocols and standards.
Today, the CDBB, the UK BIM Alliance and BSI are discontinuing the idea of BIM levels and seeking to make information management business as usual, in line with the emerging international standard ISO 19650.
With growing client focus on whole-life value (look at the July 2018 Construction Sector Deal; also the Construction Leadership Council’s 2018 report, Procuring for Value), industry professionals are being urged to look beyond ‘design’ and ‘build’ stages, and to apply processes and technologies that also support ‘operate’ and ‘integrate’ – with digital twin and systems thinking to the fore.
Achieving value will depend upon both the physical and digital twins being efficiently maintained and updated as necessary throughout their operating lives, and upon their performance and social and economic impacts being efficiently evaluated.
Bentley/CDBB digital twin research
With Bentley Systems, the CDBB has been working with Cambridge University Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) researchers plus partners from Redbite, Topcon and Geoslam, on a pilot project to develop a dynamic digital twin of buildings and systems on the university’s West Cambridge campus. Bentley’s Bruce Hutchinson told me the overall goals of this activity are to:
- Demonstrate the impact of digital modelling and analysis of infrastructure performance and use on organisational productivity
- Provide the foundation for integrating city-scale data to optimise city services such as power, waste, transport and understand the impact on wider social and economic outcomes
- Establish a ‘research capability platform’ for researchers to understand and address the major challenges in implementing digital technologies at scale
- Foster a research community interested in developing novel applications to improve the management and use of infrastructure systems
Work has progressed in three packages. The first saw creation of a building information model, drawing on a 3D model of the IfM building created using Bentley technologies, plus a detailed context capture scan undertaken by Geoslam, and 3D geometry and photogrammetry based on drone and vehicle-based scanning and camera devices by Topcon.
In parallel, a Redbite asset management solution, ‘itemit’, was used to develop an asset register, along with asset identification tags, for critical equipment. The team has deployed and tested additional ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) sensors and devices that will help monitor and control the condition and operation of critical assets and the environment in the IfM.
The second work package has focused on integrating data from various sources to enable effective data analytics and to drive better decisions, supported by a digital operations platform. In keeping with the Gemini Principles, the digital twin uses common data standards such as IFC and is interoperable, ensuring development is vendor-agnostic while potentially strengthening the current IFC schema.
The third work package is focused on exploiting captured data in the digital twin. Potential applications include predictive analytics to improve asset maintenance, and analysis to help reduce energy consumption.
Practical examples from research such as this, plus insights and lessons learned through the Digital Twin Hub, will be invaluable as the Gemini Principles are progressively fleshed out, the national digital twin starts to connect assets and inform decision-making, and industry embraces whole life thinking.
Paul Wilkinson, an independent consultant at pwcom.co.uk Ltd, is an executive director of the UK BIM Alliance, chair of its Technology Group, and deputy chair of the ICE’s digital transformation group.