Britain’s construction sector is scanning a bold new horizon.  As a digital approach to designing, building and maintaining our assets takes hold and built-environment professionals seek to drive more value from the vast volume of data now available to them, they have hit on a new panacea for the sector’s famous productivity problem – the Digital Twin.

Pioneered by computer technologist, Dr Michael Grieves, in 2003, the digital twin has long been deployed to positive effect by the manufacturing and aerospace sectors. NASA deployed one to support its Apollo 13 rescue mission and Tesla regards a digital twin of each of its cars as instrumental to delivering a stand-out customer performance over the lifespan of the vehicle.

Now, say proponents, its time has come in construction, where it has the power to transform the management, monitoring and maintenance of assets and maximise their performance by providing previously unobtainable levels of insight.

What is a digital twin?

Though definitions vary, a twin is explained simply as a virtual representation of a physical environment that brings in data from a variety of sources.

Unlike a static 3D Building Information Model (BIM), the digital twin and the physical asset are connected – typically through sensors in the physical asset – with data continually transferred between the two.

This live, ‘real-time’ interaction can be used to inform decision making, to reduce risk throughout the asset lifecycle and to optimise both the operation and maintenance of the asset – foreseeing and preventing problems before they happen for example – so ensuring a seamless experience for the end-user or customer.

Antidote to data chaos

The advent in construction of the digital twin – where last month saw a Digital Twin Day held by the Centre for Digital Built Britain in Cambridge – is in part the result of technological developments and the arrival of the internet-of-things (IoT).

Advances in capturing techniques and networked sensors and the rise of smart phones as well as a reduction in costs has made available an abundance of data about our built environment.

The sharp focus on Digital Twin technology by construction professionals is also though about a desire to fully maximise the value of that data.

Asset owners operating in today’s data-driven age are fast realising that huge volumes of data in themselves are of little use: The data needs to be amalgamated and connected in a way that unlocks insights and intelligence, which can be acted on and which can drive positive outcomes – whether through cutting costs, reducing waste or increasing safety.

Drowning in data

Our experience at PCSG and GroupBC tells us that, faced with an often bewildering array of data about their asset or project, frequently held in an array of different systems and in varying formats, many asset owners stall at the first hurdle. Their immediate questions are: “Where do I start?”  “How do I get control of this data?” “How do I gain value from it?”  This is where the ‘digital double’ concept comes into play.

The development – ‘building’ – of a digital clone requires graft with strict data quality gateways in place, integration flows established and clear information creation and exchange processes implemented to ensure consistency and an organised approach. But the ‘pain’ of this initial work proves well worth it when the end-result is data in a meaningful, engaging format, which is reliable, easy to access, quick to surface and has real value to the asset owner /manager.

Fully exploited in this way data supports business decisions or activities not just for short-term decision-making but across the whole lifetime of an asset or portfolio of assets.

HS2 – Leading the way

It is exactly this challenge that PCSG and GroupBC are currently responding to for HS2 Ltd. With a vast volume of project and asset data to procure and manage, the rail organisation went to market last year to source suppliers who could effectively pull it together and support HS2 to leverage the data so as to optimise its operations.

Using a cloud-based platform, called GeoConnect+, we are supporting the rail group to integrate its existing and future data, including all data types currently held in the Common Data Environment (CDE), project and asset information, via a series of Application Programming Interfaces (API). Made easy to access (for those who need it), quick to surface and engaging – the solution uses gaming technology – it gets users to data that matters far more quickly than before.

On an even bigger scale, a National Digital Twin is being explored by the National Infrastructure Commission as a route to helping the country as a whole better understand, manage and plan its infrastructure better and to provide a built-environment which is far more in sync with its citizens and their needs.

Digital debate

Our experience from complex projects like HS2 will form part of a digital twins breakfast briefing we are holding to mark the start of Digital Construction Week on Wednesday.

The panel, which will give a crisp run-down of the Digital Twin and its benefits and uses from the angles of an asset owner/maintainer, the Government (client) and a technology expert will be chaired by Martin Townsend, Director of BREEAM at BRE and feature Alex Lubbock, Head of Digital Construction at the Infrastructure and Projects Authority as well as PCSG’s Adrian Burgess and Stephen Crompton of GroupBC.

Key questions we will address will include: Who builds the DT? Client, supply chain or both? What exactly is it? How does the DT differ from the Building Information Model – itself once regarded as the new frontier in construction?

Deft with data

Today data is ubiquitous. But those asset owners /operators and FM teams which will benefit from this are not those intent on volume – the quantity of data – but on the quality of it and the insights they are able to draw from it.

As Jonathan Rosenberg, former SVP of products at mega-corporation Google memorably wrote in his blog: “Data is the sword of the 21st century, those who wield it well, the samurai.”

For more details on the Digital Twins breakfast panel event or to register, please contact Adrian.Burgess@pcsg.co.uk

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