- Digital twins are emerging as an essential tool in construction and the built environment.
- In fact, Las Vegas unveiled a digital twin of a 7-square-kilometer section of its downtown in January 2022.
- And the U.S.'s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 specifically calls out investment in digital construction tools, including 3D modeling and digital twin technology.
- So what are digital twins and how are they used in the construction industry?
What is a digital twin?
A digital twin, also called data twin, is a digital representation of a real world object. Digital twins have many applications outside the built envrionment, and are used in the automotive, healthcare, systems engineering, and aerospace industries. For example, digital twin technology has been used to improve performance in Formula 1 racing and to improve care during surgery.
In fact, the first data twin was used in 1970 during NASA's Apollo 13 mission. When oxygen tanks exploded early into the mission, endangering the lives of the astronauts and the entire mission, it was a digital twin that helped Mission Control diagnose and solve the problem of the leaking tanks from 200,000 miles away.
In construction, a digital twin is an exact digital replica of a construction project or asset: A building or group of buildings, a bridge, a highway, a city block, or even an entire city. Digital twins in construction can also be called data twins, virtual models or even next-generation as-built drawings.
How are digital twins for construction created?
Digital twins are created by gathering and combining real-world information about the building or structure using technologies such as 3D laser scanners, drones, sensors, cameras, and other IoT-related devices. When supported by IoT and AI, a digital twin is able to learn from multiple sources and automatically update to reflect adjustments made to its real-world counterpart.
Since a digital twin delivers information on the object’s properties and states, information can include physical orientation (such as shape, position, gesture or motion), as well as insight into other statuses, interactions and updates -- such as stress loads due to traffic or wind, or leaking pipes.
How are digital twins for construction accessed?
Digital twins can be accessed through specialized software, such as Trimble Connect, Quadri, Agile Assets, or Tekla. These systems give project stakeholders a centralized, single source of truth for digital twin storage and sharing.
How are digital twins for construction kept current?
Digital twins are kept in sync with their corresponding physical asset through BIM and 3D modeling software, scanning and point cloud data, surveying data, and any number of IoT sensors and devices that send information back to the twin in real-time.
Digital twins offer a crucial, analytic edge to BIM activity. By amassing data from several sources, and integrating that information into a 3D model, construction teams are able to gain acute insight into every component. With the aid of digital twin capabilities, BIM models are evolving to become “living,” automatically updated representations of physical assets they represent.
Digital twins align the real world with the virtual world and help illuminate the impact the environment has on a given physical asset.
How to use digital twins in construction
The main benefit of digital twins within construction is that they help improve the analytical capabilities of building information modeling (BIM). Digital twin technology adds a new level of sophistication to BIM models, so that stakeholders can visualize the real-time status, working conditions, and position of physical assets.
Thanks to digital twins, facility owners and managers are able to reconstruct every metric from a physical structure in a digital environment. Project teams can also experiment digitally and analyze expected outcomes before they make changes that impact the actual physical building, structure or work site.
Other benefits of digital twins in construction include:
Resource Management: Digital twins make it possible to create an information pipeline between the office and the field. With the aid of automatic data delivery, project stakeholders can predict allocation issues and help balance labor costs with budgets. This helps the jobsite run more efficiently and affordably.
Connectivity: Digital twins deliver information in a centralized platform. This technology takes BIM a bit further by automatically updating 3D models with constructible data. Component dimensions, model details, working conditions, and more can be added to content-enabled models. This way, no details get lost as a model evolves with the building over the years.
The benefits of digital twins don’t end when the initial construction is complete. They continue to offer smart solutions to everyday asset use.
Value-added deliverable: Digital twins can be handed over to the project owner to help support ongoing structural enhancements. The insight they provide can help inform future decision making and offer invaluable insight into day-to-day operations. A digital twin can also be a value-added asset for clients looking to leverage data in future optimization projects.
Streamlined facility management: Digital twins can offload much of the burden of asset management. For example, when a repair is needed, a digital twin can pinpoint problem areas and share necessary specs with techs. It can even keep track of who to bill for the work.
Ongoing improved efficiencies: To truly increase efficiency, you need to know how the facility is being used. KONE recently used digital twins to analyze how people are using elevators. Sensors were used to track how people moved through buildings. The goal: cut down elevator wait times, especially during busy mornings.
Solving top challenges with digital twin use in construction projects
Digital twins are complex. They rely on communication, collaboration, up-front work and real-time updates to be successful. It is well worth the time investment to avoid potential challenges.
Here are some common digital twin problems and solutions.
Lack of connectivity: Digital twin methods help elevate BIM to something more than CAD display. Unfortunately, BIM models are often created without use of as-built data. This results in a digital representation that isn’t a true twin — one that can’t be connected to the internet of things (IoT).
Outdated information: Too often, contractors don’t update design models with change orders. Without accurate, real-time data, a digital twin can’t work as intended.
Monitor progress: Collect and share data across the entire construction workflow by using tools such as managed content, project management software and a common data environment. A consistent flow of information helps ensure important details don’t get lost in translation as a model progresses.
Align data: Compare design models with as-built structures to discover discrepancies using a 3D laser scanner and point cloud data. Use this information to inform future decisions and adjustments.
Future of digital twins
Digital twins are expected to keep transforming the construction industry. A 2020 study predicted the market for digital twins will increase to $48.2 billion by 2026.
Emerging technologies are making it possible to create more accurate digital models. Brian Ringley, construction technology manager from Boston Dynamics and a product manager for Spot the Dog, says construction automation and robotics will continue to evolve and be adopted by the industry. He sees digital twin starter sets as a possible money-maker for contractors. Digital smart asset systems will employ more mobile scanning robots (such as Spot) to capture real-time data — vital for successful digital twins.
Digital twin technology is also growing popular in urban modeling. Cities and municipalities are using digital twins to create smart cities. An entire city is digitized for planning purposes, including population growth and climate change modeling.
No matter how the technology is used, one fact remains: Digital twins enhance BIM capabilities by allowing truly constructible processes. Models that can track, store, and display complex data on-the-fly help deliver valuable, actionable information to all construction phases — and for years to come. From bidding to building, digital twins are the future of getting the job done.