05 - 07 March 2024 | ExCeL, London

05 - 07 March 2024 | ExCeL, London

Opinion Piece

What do we need to change to make better use of our digital twins?

Opinion piece by Rebecca De Cicco, Principal– Digital Enablement, Aurecon & Global Chair, Women in BIM 

A Grenfell Tower tragedy survivor only realised the 24-storey building was on fire when they heard fire engines arrive. The building’s lack of smoke alarms meant it was not until he looked outside a 17th floor window and saw fire blazing up the tower’s side, alighting the cladding like a matchstick – that he knew something horrific was about to happen. Fortunately, this man survived, but 72 residents perished in the 2017 fire.

An enquiry into one of the UK’s worst modern disasters resulted in several reform recommendations, from which emerged a concept known as the ‘golden thread’ – an accurate and up-to-date digital data record relating to an asset. The golden thread is now a well-known global concept that can inform a digital twin. The aim of the golden thread is for asset owners to have immediate access to building information – everything from a buildings refurbishment to working smoke alarms, fire exit routes and helping asset owners mitigate risk. 

Typically, a digital twin is dynamic, digital representations of a physical object or asset, which is then continuously updated with data to become a “twin” of the structure, which can also display real-time behaviour of the physical object/asset. Digital twins are, by no means, the only answer to the tragedy that occurred at Grenfell, yet there is a strong synergy between building operation, asset management and digital connectivity of the data to allow those who require the data access to it. 

Digital twins are known for many things, from maximising energy efficiency to improving traffic flow in new builds. But they can also influence the way we develop and maintain existing assets, their information ultimately saving lives; for example, ensuring operational smoke alarms are in place. However, it goes further than just the data that informs the twin, rather the use of intelligent Building Information Modelling (BIM) processes and digital techniques to support design, build and even maintaining a physical asset which contributes. 

So, why after more than 60 years since the development of the first digital twin, have we not learnt how to fully maximise the use of this incredible infrastructure to truly understand and predict performance, behaviour, interaction and relationships? 

What do we need to change in order to make better use of our digital twins?

One could say there is a very simple answer. and its all about the data! Digital twins are not well understood and this is because so many times we fail to follow what our data is telling us. Few grasp the impact of how data, across the design and construction process, can support the operational phase of an asset. 

The way information requirements are specified on projects reveals the potential of the ‘twin’. This relies on the asset owner, and their ability to harness the available technologies and processes. It varies depending on the type of asset and the type of information required to maintain the asset and its location. But there should be a focus on strategising what information is required and ensuring the twin is fully up-to-date.

The essence of digital twins is connectedness and collaboration

A healthy twin will rarely be able to live off one source of information – it needs multiple data inputs. Current contracts generally lack incentives for risk-sharing and innovation and the construction sector is fundamentally based on singular projects and temporary relationships, resulting in poor knowledge transfer.

Add to this the fact that the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) space is lagging behind other industries in its digital transformation efforts.  There are also fundamental issues around security – understanding cyber threats to assets is a key issue that is preventing this data flow and sharing to occur. 

Alongside greater collaboration, education is needed. Most owners have ‘dark assets’ – siloed infrastructure data that rarely, if ever, sees the light. It is almost unthinkable to realise that 95 per cent of captured data during design and construction is never used again. 

Most owners do not know what they have and equally do not know what to do with it! When used correctly digital twins allow us to gain real-time data feeds from sensors, drones, and the Internet of Things (IoT) for example, which we can then use in simulation, machine learning and reasoning to help better decision-making. 

These processes enable us to analyse data and generate insight to the physical asset, all aiding in the proficiency and efficiency of the built environment. The United Nations’ Sustainability Goals to support the world and its governments by achieving net zero carbon by 2030 includes enabling digital twin outcomes across the world. 

With 30.9 billion IoT devices set to be connected to some form of a digital twin by 2025 and an expected market that will grow to $48.2 billion by 2026 (up from $3.1 billion in 2020), we need an educated industry together with data-literate consultants and decision-makers, we can offer a full solution towards a digital approach, but we also need to educate clients on what outcomes they can achieve and how. 

The potential is enormous!

Too often have we seen the digital process flawed in its approach by taking and failing to utilise the process of the golden thread. It is our responsibility as leaders in this field to educate on the whole-of-life approach, combining requirements around digital construction and information management, all of which are the fundamental building blocks to the future of the digital twin. A future which will hopefully prevent any further tragedies such as that of Grenfell Tower.

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