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Civil Engineer blog

How digital twins are transforming the construction industry

28 February 2024

Dr Umair Farooq, ICE Kuwait country representative, highlights the importance of embracing the inevitable digitisation of the construction industry.

How digital twins are transforming the construction industry
We need to ensure that digitisation is well embedded across the industry. Image credit: Dr Umair Farooq

Over the history of construction projects, a wide variety of mistakes have been made.

These mistakes – and the lessons they teach us as engineers – are available to study within the public domain.

And yet, we must often ask ourselves if project close out reports and lessons learned are given enough attention and importance, so that we don’t repeat the same errors.

As an industry, we’ve come a long way over the centuries since construction was executed by master builders, through to the rise of general contractors and the advent of construction management contracts.

We now have technology that can help us apply the lessons learned before construction even begins.

Enter digital twins

The digital twin model involves digitally recreating the physical component of say, a building, by collecting real world data to be processed.

Engineering principles – coupled with artificial intelligence – are applied to the digital model to obtain new data about the building and thus enabling engineers to better manage the physical component.

In essence, it’s the coming together of multiple streams of data that are being continually molded and adapted into a uniform digital structure.

Continuous adaptation through new data, whether that comes from the physical or digital model, is key.

The benefits of digital twins

The positive effects of digital twins in the construction industry are already being realised. These are some of the benefits:

  • Making decisions proactively
  • Using resources effectively
  • Minimising waste
  • Simulating conflicts or threats to reduce their effect on construction
  • Collaborating with multiple disciplines
  • Fostering better communication
  • Predicting the effects of environmental impacts/extreme weather
  • Simulating different construction methods

Digital twins and the SDGs

The benefits of digital twins cut across all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Here are a few examples:

Goal 3 – Good health and wellbeing: monitor air quality to identify when interventions are needed to help ensure people have clean air to breathe.

Goal 6 – Clean water and sanitation: monitor water levels and quality to ensure communities and businesses have the water they need. Model different scenarios to ensure the resiliency of water infrastructure and mitigate against the effects of climate change.

Goal 9 – Industry, innovation and infrastructure: optimise design, construction, operation and maintenance of infrastructure by simulating different options and methodology, as well as finding ways to boost efficiencies and reduce waste.

Goal 11 – Sustainable cities and communities: through predictive modelling and real-time monitoring, make better informed decisions to use sustainable materials and/or practices.

Goal 17 – Partnership for the goals: facilitate collaboration, decision-making and sharing of information among stakeholders to work closely and achieve the SDGs.

How do civil engineers contribute to the SDGs?

For its State of the Nation 2024 report, the ICE commissioned University College London to map and identify the SDGs that engineers have the greatest impact on.

Find out what they are

Digital twins in practice

Landmark projects such as the Shard, Crossrail, One World Trade Center and Heathrow Terminal 5 have used digital twins.

Crossrail, for example, used BIM and 3D AutoCAD to create a common data environment collating over 250,000 models to produce a digital twin.

In the words of Giacomo Lee, “Where a BIM constructs and designs, a twin manages and maintains; like a real-life asset, it never stops being affected by what’s around it.”

For Heathrow Terminal 5, an entire state-of-the-art virtual environment (VE) was developed.

This VE could analyse the building’s thermal comfort, airflow, energy use, daylight and glare, and more.

It was also used to comply with regulations, demonstrating its adaptability. And, it enabled collective decision making.

How to implement digital twins

Before building the digital twin, a number of factors need to be considered, including:

  • purpose
  • level of investment
  • amount of data needed
  • how to collect the physical data
  • how cross-collaboration will work
  • governance structure to preserve and update the digital model
  • how to blend various file formats to ensure standardisation

What are the challenges of digital twins?

There will be initial and ongoing challenges to manage such as obtaining enough investment and data.

There need to be safeguards to maintain data privacy and protect against cybercrime and data theft. Digital twins also need to adapt to local law and regulations.

In addition, to embrace such a change, we need resources, skills and enhanced supply chains.

We need to work more closely together to ensure government policies are aligned with this dynamic dimension to our construction industry.

The 'Gemini Principles' published by the Centre for Digital Built Britain have provided a good example of data management.

This needs to be extended further with a view of achieving full digitisation, such as in Singapore, which implemented the world’s first national digital twin.

Embedding digital twins

Clients and governments need to be more convinced of the valuable savings that this digitisation can achieve for construction projects.

They must understand that it’s a dynamic and cyclic process.

Digitisation needs to be embedded within tender documents to encourage the market and supply chains to adapt in what can be viewed as an industry that’s slow to react to change.

We also need to ensure that digitisation is well embedded within curriculums at apprenticeships, colleges and universities.

Indeed, we should be looking for digital competence when interviewing candidates for professional membership with the ICE.

  • Dr Umair Farooq, Kuwait country representative at ICE