Prop tech: What is a digital twin in construction?

Mar 31, 2020 · 8 min read

Digital Twin. One of the hottest buzzwords in Construction and Property Development today and the strongest digitisation trend in this industry of the past years. The concept unlocks untapped opportunities across the lifecycle of any physical asset, and despite being around since the early 2000’s, it is now simpler than ever to implement and reap the benefits in practice.

Because of its origins in IoT, most articles on this topic focus on applications of sensor data, with analytics and metrics to interpret a variety of factors, such as air quality and temperature conditions, user activity, area usage, furniture placement, equipment performance, etc. As a result, there’s a general idea that property owners can create a Digital Twin simply by heading out to an existing asset and “digitise it” by deploying sensors all over the place… This is a limiting notion, that barely paints the picture of what a Digital Twin is and what it can do.

In this post, we’ll discuss how the concept of a Digital Twin within Property Development can be seen as an evolutionary phase of Building Information Modelling (BIM), and present its journey across the life cycle of a typical new-build project — although this applies likewise to existing buildings, refurbishment projects, as well as different types of assets from other industries.

Let’s start with the concept itself.

Linking the Real and Virtual worlds

The whole idea is to establish a virtual replica that centralises all information about a real-world asset like a factory, a machine, a ship, a building, or even a city. This requires having three components in place:

physical asset existing in the real world,

A virtual counterpart to that asset (existing in our computers and smartphones), and

A flow of information that ties them together.

The concept builds upon capturing and cross-referencing several types of information about the asset.

Among others, this can include field data about available and used areas, temperature and air quality, surrounding environmental factors, equipment performance, maintenance schedules, and even user behaviour.

Presented in such unified form, these data delivers new insights and metrics, available in few clicks to relevant stakeholders, from anywhere. The resulting impact can be tremendous, across multiple areas that rely on the accuracy and easy access to such information that would otherwise be difficult to obtain, and whose lacking typically causes unnecessary and costly trouble. A Digital Twin will provide powerful opportunities:

For improving Planning, Production, or Operation & Maintenance activities

For making better decisions that follow data-driven insights

For improving team coordination and communication

For avoiding unnecessary costs, delays, material waste, travels for in-person visits, and partner disputes

For providing better services to users and partners

For expanding the functional life span of the asset.

This idea goes well beyond creating a “User Manual 2.0” of your building:

It is the actual building itself — its anatomy and behaviour in real time — as a living entity inside your computer, for all relevant partners to access from anywhere.

Here’s an example of a Digital Twin play across the life-cycle of a typical new-build project.

1. Planning and Design stages

The creation of virtual 3D models in the early Planning and Design stages is now commonplace in the vast majority of development projects. The objective, of course, is to predict the end result of the project as accurately as possible, as well as to forecast the building process itself and the building’s lifecycle expenses with confidence.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) has established itself as the international standard for integrating and optimising all different dimensions of a development project: the geometric details, volumes and layout placement of all different objects and disciplines, construction scheduling for the different teams, suppliers and logistics, contracts and documentation management, etc…

Solutions like Catenda’s BIMSync are making tremendous strides in helping their partners interconnect and easily access such amounts of data within a BIM methodology. Virtual Reality setups like Dimension10 are taking entire project teams on immersive virtual group tours inside their own design models to put everyone on the same page before any brick is even laid.

Optimising the design models in the early phases allows to greatly reduce uncertainty and project risks, given the challenges of the upcoming Construction period and the increasing costs of requesting modifications to the design plans as the project moves forward.

However, the danger of over-optimisation is a false sense of control and predictability that can rapidly fall apart during the execution period as small errors snowball into large problems. It’s vital to realise that only the virtual (theoretical) part of the Digital Twin exists at this stage in the lifecycle — The resulting models are often called “As-Designed” or “As-Planned”. The actual, physical counterpart of the building only comes to life in the Construction phase, and this “As-Built” part of the twin has traditionally received nowhere near the same degree of attention as the side of the digital models.

Here’s the case for merging the REAL with the DIGITAL:

  • The building plans and BIM models from the earlier planning and design stages are ready for Construction.
  • The plans are distributed and the contractor teams just have to follow the plans and build according to BIM.
  • Everyone knows what needs to be done, where, when, and by whom, by accessing the commonly-shared BIM data at any given time.

Sounds simple. But how do you know if what is being built on-site actually matches the BIM plans? Accessing the BIM model is only the virtual part of the Digital Twin, so how do we access its real-world counterpart and make sure both are a match? Moreover, what happens if they don’t match?

So, how can we capture the actual reality of the field status? The established practice for doing this today relies on smartphone photos or even 360 panoramas taken by onsite personnel to capture the field status, along with comments, diagrams, and signed checklists that demonstrate everything has been built properly. These can be supplemented by on-site inspection rounds, taking ad-hoc random samples and manual measurements to validate that things are installed within tolerance, making notes and Red-line Drawings on the go.

This is far from sufficient, considering the sheer size of typical projects and the number of objects to verify. Consider the implications of the added costs and delays from overlooked mistakes, and unforeseen discipline clashes, and partner disputes, all stemming from insufficient documentation. (not to mention making it worth all the investment and effort of trying to mitigate exactly such risks during the earlier planning phases, in the first place).

Capturing accurate As-Built status on an ongoing basis must be seen as a vital requirement of the Digital Twin concept, and this demands new solutions that are both more scalable and efficient than the traditional mainstream methods.

2. Construction Stage

The start of the Construction phase introduces a specific and under-appreciated challenge that is critical to the success of the Digital Twin concept.

By spending the past decade focused on improving the development of digital models, the industry overlooked Reality itself as a vital component of the entire concept. Having a digital model is fine and dandy, but the “twin” part of Digital Twin is really what matters. In other words, a “twin” of what?

At Imerso, we build software that allows using any off-the-shelf 3D Scanning technology (like Leica’s beautiful BLK360 and RTC360 scanners) as simply as taking a photo. This opens the door for our customers to capture true As-Built data with millimetre precision in full 3D at any desired frequency throughout the construction phase — at every milestone, monthly, weekly, or even daily.

Moreover, our platform automatically maps the As-Built status captured in the scans against the BIM models of the project and checks that everything is on track.

Now we’re talking.

The Digital Twin starts emerging and the two-way flow of information becomes a powerful advantage to all parties, with data coming from the field to the Digital Twin, as well as from the twin to the field, closing the traditional gap between them. Deviations are addressed earlier with minimal impact on the project, teams are kept on the same page, and the overall dialogue is based on empirical Reality data without unnecessary in-person field visits. By ensuring that the field status and the digital status match each-other on a continuous basis, the process dramatically increases the advantages and reliability of other industry trends, such as the deployment of onsite monitoring sensors, construction robots like nLink’s brilliant drilling rover, and autonomously navigated platforms that rely on the accuracy of the digital twin data.

There’s more than enough incentive to carry this workflow all the way through to the completion of the construction phase and beyond.

3. Operations and Maintenance Stage

Starting from the Handover period at the end of the Construction phase, a typical challenge for the Owner is to validate the accuracy of the final As-Built deliverables submitted by the contractor teams. If inaccurate, this data becomes unreliable and propagates a high risk for running operations, maintenance, and future projects based on it (eg. planning refurbishments). It’s like buying a new, huge, and expensive machine without being able to trust the user manual.

The contractor teams face exactly the same problem themselves as part of that delivery, and have likely done the best they could to document things accurately — plus, the Owner always has the ability to go inspect the final status in person if they want, before accepting the handover.

A Digital Twin strategy changes this dynamic entirely — the accuracy of the documentation has been shared and maintained throughout the construction process, and an accurate As-Built BIM that matches the field Reality can effectively be part of the final deliverables — and several companies have started differentiating their offers based on this added ability to provide transparency and verifiable quality.

At this point, the Digital Twin carries reliable information about the entire historical development of the construction period. As such, the twin can become the central placeholder where all data related to the building is connected into, such Operations and Maintenance contracts and schedules stored in the Owners’ servers. Any equipment upgrade or refurbishment undertaking can easily be carried out by repeating the process using this available data, as well as updating the Digital Twin at completion.

Having accurate As-Built data as an underlying structure can thus be seen as a precedent for taking advantage of the plentiful IoT business-cases of a Digital Twin — the opportunities for new digital workflows are endless.

This post barely scratches the surface of such a wide concept, but we hope you have found this insightful — We’d love to hear your feedback.

Need help with a construction project, or digitising a real-estate portfolio?Contact us here.


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