Explainers

What can digital twins do for you?

6 August 2019 | By Ali Nicholl

Ali Nicholl, head of engagement at Iotic, outlines how the construction industry is starting to recognise the benefits of digital twins and looks at some exciting developments. 

As companies increasingly embrace digital transformation and Enterprise 4.0, this advancement also brings with it an ever-broadening capability gap. There is a need for businesses to leverage existing technology investments and at the same time embrace new technologies and share data and resources with partners, suppliers and customers. As a result, there is immediately a complex interoperability challenge. 

Digital twins provide an answer to the combined failings of the traditional, hierarchical-based approaches with one-time-use based integrations which are both costly and inflexible. New technologies promise greater flexibility, agility and transformation, but are too often isolated from incumbent platforms, systems and databases. Legacy systems tend to exist in parallel to new developments, rather than informing and complementing them. 

So, what exactly is a digital twin? Quite simply, it is a virtual version of a process, product or service, which creates a two-way link between the physical and virtual world. Pairing these two different worlds enables analysis of data, from its conception to use and monitoring, helps prevent problems before they even occur, avoids downtime and develops new opportunities. 

They work by interrelating data and controls from across the entire eco-system, collecting it from sensors, platforms, databases and schedules and allowing it to interoperate. This means information can be gathered about the real-time status and working conditions of a site, project, building, material, piece of machinery or even a person.  

The data is passed securely from real-life sources to a virtual entity, “the twin”. This twin can interact with multiple different sources, both internal and external and can even connect to contextual data such as weather and environmental information.

Digital twins in the building industry 

The UK construction industry is attempting to increase productivity levels in line with other sectors as it is inhibited by complex and evolving environments, hindered by fractured and highly variable supply chains and shackled by large amounts of regulation, particularly when it comes to health and safety. 

Linking a virtual version of a building to its real-world counterpart can show construction workers how it is performing in real time. An example is connecting the behaviour of people wanting to use the lifts with demands at different times, service history, weather and building occupancy to enable facilities management to improve efficiency and minimise downtime. This data can also be of use to architects, engineers and consultants to enhance the design of future buildings.

Connecting twins of different buildings and their sites, along with multiple layers of infrastructure will also give those in the industry the means to create smart cities, enabling designers and planners to interrelate event-driven data to gain insights into a living city. They can also look forward, simulating scenarios such as the impact of a new building on traffic flow or water and power supplies.

Digital twins use data collected from sensors on physical buildings

Digital twins also have the potential to prevent serious accidents and reduce risk in typically hazardous environments by monitoring assets to avoid potential failures. Safety regulations are obviously necessary, but twins help shoulder the burden, automating tasks and maximising the return from resources.

Liberating staff from onerous monitoring and management means that more of their time can be spent on duties directly impacting the build project or business and increase productivity, while maintaining standards.

Digital twins can also help overcome persistent issues such as low profit margins and the need to do more with less. The construction industry can learn from other sectors, for example manufacturing where Rolls Royce Power Systems is pioneering the use of digital twins to deliver the next generation of customer service. 

The design and construction phase provides the ideal opportunity to begin creating digital twins. Adding sensors to buildings to collect data is the easy part. The challenge is to enable the secure exchange of data across the lifecycle of a project.

Innovation for construction 

In response to a call for increases in productivity and performance in operational and on-site environments, BAM Nuttall is working with Iotic and researchers at Cranfield University to develop an AI-based, computer-vision activated camera. It is a solution which allows complex sensor interactions and controls capable of working in even adverse settings and weather conditions. 

The Learning Camera is a flexible, scaleable solution which employs a standard webcam. The digital twin of the data captured by the camera is linked to the digital twins of sources of environmental data such as the weather, as well as contextual information including date and time, to create an asset twin. All this data is then analysed and the results sent to a dashboard.  

For example, this flexible, highly adaptive eco-system means that a camera can be trained to recognise a scenario on site and alert users of changes, notifying the individual or individuals necessary who can then be sent to investigate and rectify any problems. 

The project aims to demonstrate how advances in technology, especially the use of digital twins, can bring benefits to the industry: driving safer sites, higher quality experiences for employees and improvements in productivity. 

Applied in the right way, the technology can free staff from repetitive and risky activities, because with multiple cameras set up on sites, there will, for example, be a reduced need for someone  to enter a hazardous zone and be out in all weathers, while additional time will be saved by not having to regularly and manually monitor equipment. 

Dr Yifan Zhao, lecturer in Image and Signal Processing and Degradation Assessment at the Through Life Engineering Service Institute at Cranfield, believes the innovation is a great opportunity for AI to be applied to a traditional industry. 

“By using the learning camera, construction sites will be better equipped to manage and deliver projects. It will also help to promote the need for the industry to attract talent with skills in software and hardware development to tackle the much-publicised poor productivity levels,” he says. 

Twin technology as masterminds 

Creating digital twins of data sources, consumers and the assets they are related to enables comprehensive interoperability across enterprise eco-systems. The twins can develop and grow with use cases, allowing enterprises to leverage existing technology and safely adopt new capabilities such as the Learning Camera. The rise and adoption of digital twins is helping to create a machine-readable world, where different users in different organisations throughout a supply chain can visualise, virtualise and model what is important to them and their business.  

The bringing together of previously unrelated data helps us learn lessons and uncover opportunities within the virtual environment that can transform businesses. 

Colin Evison, head of innovation at BAM Nuttall, adds: “This is a real opportunity to explore how we can make construction projects smarter by the adoption and development of tech solutions not traditionally available.”

Digital twins act as a business brain, driving innovation and performance. They bring together fractured tools and services, with the most advanced monitoring, analytical, and predictive capabilities at their fingertips. 

Within just the next five years, there will be billions of things represented by digital twins, and these proxies of the physical world will lead to new opportunities for creative collaboration.  

This will, in turn, help companies improve their customer experience by being better able to understand their needs, develop enhancements to existing products, operations and services and even help drive the innovation of new business models. 

For every asset, data source or location, there is a potential virtual version, fed from existing technologies that becomes richer, more powerful and more useful with every event or piece of operational data added.  

All indications are that we are at the cusp of a digital twin age, where companies can begin to safely, scaleably, and progressively model what matters to them and their customers — interacting across their enterprise, supply chains and customers.

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