Q&A: Dr Jennifer Schooling – Why digital twins are a natural progression for BIM

Dr Jennifer Schooling, director of Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure & Construction and chair of the Strategic Research Advisory Group at the Centre for Digital Built Britain, tells BIM+ about winning an OBE, her cutting-edge work on asset monitoring, and the future of BIM and digital twins.

Congratulations on winning the OBE for Services to Engineering and Digital Construction, how did that feel?

It was a delightful thing to have happen to me, but really I see it as a recognition of the great work done by people within CSIC and latterly within the CDBB. At CSIC, we have been working for the last seven years developing some very innovative smart infrastructure solutions for design, construction and the ongoing monitoring of assets throughout their life, as well as using the data for asset management.

What are your views on national progress with BIM?

We need to think about BIM as being about information management across the whole lifecycle of an asset. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why take up has not gone as well as it should.

There are obvious benefits during design and delivery, but the biggest benefits will come from using information throughout the asset’s lifecycle. BIM needs the engagement of people who will own and operate the asset once it has been handed over to ensure that project teams get the right information requirement specifications to respond to. Without that, they can only really manage the information that is of most relevance to them.

That said, the government mandate only came in in 2016, which is fairly recent, so I don’t think we should beat ourselves up too much the fact we haven’t yet created the gold star solution. We’re asking whole industry to convert from a largely paper-based system, not just digital data capture, but object-based data capture and that’s a philosophical u-turn that people need time to come to terms with.

Does the same apply to infrastructure’s use of BIM?

On the infrastructure side, the digital information revolution is, in some ways, easier to make work because the assets are so long lived and the ongoing information requirements are clear. BIM is typically being commissioned by the organisation that is ultimately going to own and/or operate it so understanding of the value of data is easier to explain and grasp.

CSIC has been looking at how we can use live data from sensors and various other sources to really understand how assets perform. That enables us to calibrate our design models, better understand the mechanics of how things operate and perform post-construction.

What are the most exciting recent projects you have been involved in?

Network Rail had concerns about a 150-year old masonry bridge outside Leeds, which was cracking and it was difficult to understand the precise impacts as trains passed over the top. CSIC deployed a range of sensors, which are monitoring crack growth so that we can understand the degradation rate of the asset. This helps us understand which components of the bridge are of concern and need treatment and the form of treatment that would be most appropriate, as well as the components that need a watching brief.

A digital twin is really a progression of BIM. BIM will ultimately be subsumed into this bigger idea of a digital twin, which accompanies the physical asset throughout its life.– Dr Jennifer Schooling

Another project I’ve really been excited by is work we carried out monitoring heritage assets as part of Transport for London’s Bank tube station capacity upgrade. They needed to drive new tunnels under the City of London and certain buildings with heritage value, including Christopher Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow Church, could be exposed to ground movement from the tunnel.

This could be problematic, not just for the structure but for the beautiful frescoes on the walls of the church. We were asked to fit the church, inside and out, with a range of novel instrumentation techniques, including fibre optics and photogrammetry, to monitor the building, alongside more traditional surveying techniques.

This monitoring made it possible to justify not carrying out advanced remedial works on the church, such as additional grouting. If anything of concern was to start to occur we would have taken appropriate action, but nothing did. This process worked out better for the church because there was very little intervention and it saved the project a lot of time and money.

The real innovation was using sensors to monitor how a structure is behaving in real-time. We were feeding our data on an hourly basis to the contractor’s monitoring dashboard, providing much more detailed information about the asset than they would have been able to get otherwise.

Does this signal a way forward for the retrospective monitoring of existing structures and buildings?

Yes, you can assess the performance for assets of concern and their capacity and therefore deliver the right kind of maintenance, when it is needed, rather than tackling maintenance on a periodic basis based on little evidence. It generally means more informed decision making around the maintenance and management of assets and their current capacities.

The ultimate aim is to avoid disasters, like the Genoa bridge, as well as disruptions such as the closure of the Forth Road bridge and the Hammersmith flyover. The more information we have about key assets at important points on our road or rail networks, the more likely we are to spot things before they become a crisis, dealing with them in a timely way with as little disruption as possible.

What’s next for BIM?

There are numerous discussions at the moment around digital twins for the built environment. This was brought to prominence by the National Infrastructure Commission’s Data for the Public Good report, released in December 2017.

The report talked about the fact that we are not good at managing and sharing data about infrastructure (which is also true of buildings). One of initiatives they suggested was the creation of an information management framework to make data sharing easier and the development of digital twins to help with the management of data through the life of the asset.

A digital twin is really a progression of BIM. BIM will ultimately be subsumed into this bigger idea of a digital twin, which accompanies the physical asset throughout its life. All the information about the physical asset is recorded in the digital twin which will bring a huge number benefits, both in terms of the individual asset and making the right decisions about it, and feeding learning when we design and build the next one of them.

We currently create a huge amount of data during design, construction and operation, but we’re not at all good at curating that data and therefore learning from the data we have generated in the past.

This relates to what is coming out of Dame Judith Hackitt’s report into Grenfell. She refers to the golden thread of information and making sure that everybody involved in the lifecycle of an asset understands why things have been done a certain way so that you don’t inadvertently make a decision, for example, installing a different kind of door without realising the existing door was specified for a particular strength or fire rating etc.

There are multiple cultural and contractual reasons why that has been a problem in the past, but solving the problem will be helped by having something like a digital twin as a vehicle for the data.

What are the current challenges of making digital twins a reality?

The industry hasn’t yet pinned down the digital verification of what was constructed on site. Conversations has started to happen around how we do that, not just from a technical perspective but from the contractual perspective. If it can be solved you have access to a very rich trove of information.

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  1. Good article but what has this got to do with twins? Are they identical or not? This is just another term to confuse the non geek BIM folk…………..can we just get back to plain english please??

  2. Tony Radford, what term do you suggest?

  3. There are no dragons here.
    The digital twin is simply a virtual representation of its’ physical twin. The digital twin holds all the data and information that you could possibly around operation, maintenance and design and construction. Link this to a Building Management System with real time sensors and data collectors, then you measure the performance of your building from moment to moment. :o). J.

  4. ‘We need to think about BIM as being about information management’; exactly!. When BIM became ‘building information model(ling)’ rather than ‘building information management’ it was hijacked by the design professions to create 3D models and walk-throughs, and the value of information was lost.

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