Digital Twins: What are they and what are their advantages?

General Contractors
Subcontractors
Suppliers
August 17, 2021

As much of the world embraces technology and new innovations, construction is often slow to adopt. One digital product that has been gaining momentum in the industry is digital twins. These building models allow owners and builders to understand buildings during operation, predict future performance, and gather important information about their buildings. Let’s take a look at digital twins and how they can benefit the construction industry.

What is a digital twin?

In case you aren’t familiar with digital twins, they are a virtual copy of a physical item. They’re often used in manufacturing and production and have recently started to expand into the construction industry. In construction, they are often used to represent a built asset, such as a building.

Digital twins are used to model and predict real life scenarios in the physical world. They help maintenance and operations teams make better decisions, understand building performance, predict future performance, and quantify materials. They rely on sensors and the internet of things to measure real-time performance, and artificial intelligence to predict future outcomes.

Some see digital twins as similar to BIM (building information modeling) for facility maintenance, but they each work with a different data set. While BIM data models the built asset at the time of turnover, digital twins are based in real time and project into the future.

Advantages of using digital twins in construction

Increased owner value

Building owners and managers are using digital twins to help them reduce maintenance costs, inform operational decisions, and gather information about their facilities. Digital twins can be used to model future building performance based on current and historical data. Artificial intelligence is used to provide predictive analytics to show future performance based on proposed maintenance projects and/or potential changes to the building’s operations. The digital building can also be used to gather information, like the amount of a certain type of tile in the building.

Digital twins allow operations personnel to try new things prior to design and construction and know how the changes will affect building performance. This is being done with success in COVID related remodels, to model space changes and show how they will affect performance. Many versions of the same remodel can be modeled and compared to determine which is most cost-effective and least affects building performance.

Save design costs

Digital twins help to reduce the need for on-site designers and travel costs. Engineers and architects are able to work remotely on the design because the twin is housed in the cloud. Projects have been able to substantially reduce the number of on-site engineers needed, from 10 to 1 on one particular project. This saves both time and travel costs, reducing the overall cost of the design. 

Designs are also completed more quickly, because everyone has access to the model and can easily see changes made by others. Time isn’t lost transferring files from one designer to another, or from design to engineering. One project was able to complete the design process three weeks sooner due to the use of a digital twin during design.

Collaboration

Using an online platform and hosting the digital twin online improves collaboration among design and construction team members. Using one platform also enhances communication, as data isn’t siloed in proprietary software. The ability to work on the design remotely and simultaneously improves collaboration throughout the project lifecycle.

This collaboration saves more time during strategic handoffs, such as from design to engineering and then to construction. Plans are immediately available from the digital twin and easily worked on in the cloud, without downloading or transferring of files.

Challenges for construction

Tech adoption

It is well documented that construction is one of the slowest industries in adopting technology. Many companies still rely on pen and paper or rudimentary electronic processes for communication and project management. Although, the pandemic provided an opportunity to improve on technological adoption, and most of the industry has responded out of necessity. Developing and using digital twins may be a stretch for those who aren’t familiar with the technology, so they will be slow to adopt it. The more it gets used, however, the more comfortable designers and contractors will become.

Siloed data sources

Currently construction and design team members use different software to perform their work. Designers and engineers use CAD programs, contractors project management software, and owners have their own platform. With all the data in different formats, collaboration can be difficult. With one data source, in the form of a digital twin, communication is seamless, and delays are avoided. However, the software for creating digital twins struggles to compile all the data from different sources. Many companies are working to improve this integration.

Availability for construction

The availability of the software infrastructure needed to bring digital twins to construction is spotty at best. Digital twins are used regularly in manufacturing and other industries, and they are slowly being transitioned into construction. Without overall adoption by the industry, the use of digital twins will grow slowly. As more software options become available, their use is sure to rise.

Conclusion

Using digital twins to model buildings leads to increased owner value, saves on design costs, and increases collaboration. Teams must work to overcome the challenges of slow tech adoption, siloed data, and the availability of software to create them. However, the future looks bright for digital twins in construction.

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