The phrase “digital twin” regularly comes up in forward-thinking conversations about construction innovation and technology, making it one of the most talked about topics in the industry.
In the simplest of terms, the digital twin is a digital replica of a built asset like a bridge, campus, city, railway or office building. But it’s not just a static copy: it provides a bi-directional link between the digital and physical worlds, so that the digital reflects everything that’s happening in relation to a real-world asset’s performance and use.
More than just a buzzword or trend, digital twins can truly transform how we develop and maintain buildings, and can help to solve today’s construction challenges in 2022 and beyond.
Digital twinning activities allow the modelling of the processes which enable outcome-driven design and cocreation of solutions between the supplier and the customers. Using digital twins, it becomes possible to downscale construction by delivering a better experience with a smaller, higher-performance asset. More bespoke, site-specific, user-specific solutions can be conceived and assembled. Data availability and transparency are the vectors which ensure that investors, consumers, and businesses make more informed decisions. For example, data relating to the performance and energy costs of existing buildings must become available to make reliable forecasts of the return that might be expected from investments in building upgrades.
How the digital twin works
For the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry, a digital twin is in the form of the built asset. Take, for example, an office building and its digital twin. At the end of design and construction, there is an exact, digital replica of the entire building, from the roof to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. The actual, physical building is mirrored as a “twin” in a digital, dynamic format. Unlike a digital model or a simulation, a digital twin is not static. Just as the final, completed office building changes with use, so does the digital twin. It is responsive and continues to evolve as more data is supplied to it, such as data from artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, or IoT. That means it can also simulate and predict informed decisions based on real-world conditions of the building.
Digital twin is not a “one and done” exercise, and there are different levels of use. A digital twin for one project may be more simplistic with editable data, while another may be a fully mature use with enhanced simulations. But the core benefits remain the same. From the beginning of a project throughout the entire life cycle of an asset, a digital twin continues to live, grow, and provide new insights for better ROI, energy savings, maintenance, and performance.
How digital twin technology will support the construction industry
The digital twin is helping the construction industry to solve some major challenges. These include meeting requirements for increased infrastructure spend delivered by the 2021-22 Budgets with a total $248 billion allocated over the four years to FY2024-25, and the challenge of reducing the construction industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions to achieve net zero by 2050.
The industry can meet the government’s obligations of decarbonisation through complete control of materials, recycling, maintenance, embodied and whole-life GHG emissions. The government can work with industry to focus on strategies that reduce the use of products, recycle the products at end-of-life and re-use accordingly.
In the Australian context, an excellent example is Refrigerant Reclaim Australia (RRA) which has an objective to reduce the level of emissions of refrigerants through its take-back program. Since being established in 1993, RRA has become integral in the management of used and unwanted refrigerants deployed in stationary (buildings) and non-stationary (automotive) sectors. In recognition of the impact the RRA is having, it has received multiple international awards including the Ozone Protection Award for “exceptional contribution to global environment protection” in 1995, the Montreal Protocol Implementers Award in 2007, and a Climate Protection Award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2006. The RRA scheme demonstrates that we can develop a similar approach to product stewardship in our industry whereby whoever designs, produces, sells, or uses a product takes responsibility for minimising the product’s environmental impact throughout all stages of its life cycle, including end of life management. We must be thinking of existing buildings as “material mines”and future buildings as “material depots.”
Key ways the digital twin can support the construction industry to solve the construction industry’s challenges include:
- Simulating and predicting informed decisions based on real-world conditions of buildings or assets
The insights provided by the digital twin are based on real-world data, providing an opportunity for better decision making and creating energy-saving solutions.
With performance data and analysis, operators can optimise energy consumption, make informed decisions that extend the value and life cycle of assets to save costs, and begin efficient operation of assets from day one.
The adoption of digital twin enables construction firms to have greater competitive differentiation and delivers more value to customers in the form of data.
Upfront conversations and collaboration with owners help to prioritise the asset’s use and performance expectations, as well as determine types of data required to achieve those goals.
- Providing a holistic and usable view of design and construction data
Over the past 20 years in the AEC industry, the amount of information created and captured has increased significantly. However, at handover that information is passed on to the owner in an analogue form – paper or digital paper.
In construction, 2D plans and specifications remain the industry-standard deliverable for documents. However, owners often also ask for BIM (Building Information Modelling) without any means to articulate what they actually need or how they can use it. The typical result is that project teams spend countless, unbillable hours updating models. And, at the end of the day, these models aren’t even useful to the owner because data is trapped in files.
- Enabling connected, accurate and insightful data
Analogue, unclassified, and disconnected data is often an insurmountable challenge for owners and operators to monitor, manage, and fine-tune their asset. They are unable to realise the benefits of smart buildings and end up with siloed data and systems, inaccurate information, and a lack of transparency and important insights.
Now, a digital twin can finally solve this handover problem with all the data and insights at the owner and operator’s fingertips. With digital twin development in line with design and construction, a cohesive handover of data is possible.
The smart buildings of today optimise use of space, people, and operations. Reducing energy consumption is key, but the creation of environments which foster productivity, use space more efficiently, and support streamlined operations will be vital in the move towards a zero-carbon economy.
Connected, real-world data will be key to solving the construction industry’s challenges
A significant opportunity exists for project teams to capitalise on the connected, real-world data and information the digital twin provides by delivering a holistic and usable view of design and construction data as a digital twin of the built asset. This in turn will enable owner/operators to have a single source of truth for operations that reduces the total cost of ownership, achieves greater operational efficiency, and realises the value of BIM long after handover. Projects will be united from beginning to end, helping to create sustainability and enable efficiency of materials including use and re-use.
By innovating with technology such as the digital twin, the construction industry will improve productivity, projects can be delivered faster, less expensively, and with reduced waste, than traditional construction models.
Technology supports the infrastructure and construction industries with the tools they need to unlock insights, make better decisions, and achieve superior outcomes. Digital twin isn’t far off in the future—it’s happening now.
Sumit commenced as an Industry Strategy Manager with Autodesk Construction Solutions (ACS) in 2020, and is a key contributor in defining and executing ACS strategic priorities across the Asia Pacific region. Sumit’s previous role was National Director and Victorian Executive Director with the Air Conditioning and Mechanical Contractors’ Association (AMCA). Sumit was instrumental in the development of the BIM-MEPAUS Initiative from its inception in 2010, and is a passionate industry advocate who believes in helping the industry deliver quality projects through construction innovation.
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Autodesk Tandem is a cloud-based digital twin technology platform. It enables projects to start digital and stay digital, transforming rich data into business intelligence.