The development of Building Information Modelling (BIM) changed the way that construction companies interact with data and helped them understand its true value. As we use this digital framework and develop more technologies, such as digital twins, built environment professionals have a great opportunity to gather and use data to transform the industry. Here Martin Hurn, event director at sustainable construction event Futurebuild, explores the role of the growing digital construction ecosystem.
Over the last ten years, the construction industry is growing more aware of the value of creating, gathering and analysing data. Access to more reliable and plentiful information helps companies make informed decisions about processes, materials and improve productivity, reduce costs and increase sustainability during construction projects.
Over recent years, BIM has been considered the tool of choice to collect, analyse and interpret project data. Now, the concept of digital twins is shaking up the way we use construction data. This could pose some questions for some; should we consolidate our application of BIM before we invest in new technology? Or, do we abandon our focus on BIM and consider the development of digital twins as a fresh approach?
“Digital twins have been slightly mis-sold as a separate concept to BIM,” explained Peter Barker, managing director of BIM Academy. “Actually, they are not mutually exclusive. Digital twins are a continuum of the structured approach to information management that BIM has brought to the industry. In the late 2000’s, BIM has been a powerful force pushed a traditionally analogue industry embrace a more structured approach to creating, gathering and analysing data, through the whole lifecycle. Digital twins take this concept to a logical conclusion and helps us to develop a dynamic and interactive information resource that we can use to optimise our understanding and use of the built environment.”
So, there is no question about choosing one technology over another because they do not conflict — using both concepts in unison can greatly benefit the industry. Organisations can use BIM to create a digital representation of the physical and functional characteristics of a building or system. Multiple stakeholders and architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) professionals can then collaborate on the planning, design, construction and operation of the facility from any location, from a central 3D digital information model.
While digital twins may seem similar, because they are a virtual replica of a physical asset, they differ in the level of connectivity. In a digital twin, the digital and physical assets are connected and measured in real time, so AEC professionals can access performance data at any point of a structure’s lifespan. Businesses can also connect a portfolio of digital twins and exchange data between them to understand more about the infrastructure they work with.
“Both BIM and digital twins are all about information. They allow businesses to make better use of information throughout assets’ lifecycles and across systems’ processes — planning, delivery, operation, maintenance and use,” explained Mark Enzer, head of the national digital twin programme at Centre for Digital Built Britain. “The real value in embracing all this comes from making better decisions, faster and at a lower cost.”
BIM has been vital for improving concept design and planning processes. Architecture firms structure data to generate digital 3D geometric models of a building, giving all parties involved in the project an opportunity to understand, analyse, adapt and optimise a design. Seeing and interacting with a full digital model, instead of 2D drawings or physical 3D models, allows parties to better envision designs as fully operational structures.
Construction teams can now use the data and virtual model created by BIM software as the basis for the digital twin. The connection between the digital twin and the virtual model provides real-time operational data about the final building, giving AEC professionals the information needed to enhance asset performance, influence future designs and improve sustainability.
For example, AEC professionals can trial different scenarios on the digital asset to ensure that the final structure is as energy efficient as possible. Once the building is complete, data from digital twins can help businesses understand more about the building’s occupancy and performance.
“Traditionally, the industry has had little empirical data post-occupancy — it is often subjective and anecdotal,” explained David Miller, director and principal architect at David Miller Architects. “Creating a digital twin of the building to give real-time, objective data on factors such as fabric performance or energy usage could be really powerful, especially if harvested across a large estate. It could ultimately move us towards whole lifecycle costing and away from low cost construction.”
This can be a game changer for sustainability. We can more accurately simulate the buildings performance and trial sustainable materials or technologies using digital twins and choose the optimum design that generates the lowest carbon impact. The more we understand about how we use buildings once they are complete will also help us build better structures that will not waste energy, saving resources and reducing emissions.
What happens now?
“The foundation that the industry laid with BIM is incredibly valuable for digital twins and connected digital twins,” continued Barker. “I cannot imagine us ever creating digital twins if we haven’t laid the groundwork with BIM.”
So, how do we maximise the potential and the interrelationship of both concepts?
The AEC industry has changed dramatically in the last ten years because of BIM. However, the change didn’t happen immediately and many are still learning— the industry, often led my government, established clear definitions and frameworks to ensure that we made the most of the technology. We’re now building on this foundation to understand how digital twins can help us gain more data about our industry so we can make even better decisions.
So, are we ready for digital twins if the industry has not gained everything it can from BIM? Industry debates suggest that it is not about choice — these technologies are part of the same journey to discover how gathering and analysing data improves productivity and sustainability.
Futurebuild 2021 will bring industry influencers together to debate how technologies, such as BIM and digital twins, can inspire transformational change in the built environment. Have you got an innovative digital technology that can transform the industry? Showcase it! Register you interest for Futurebuild 2021