Making digital twins less daunting

It’s a challenge to define what a digital twin means. No wonder so many of us feel daunted by the process to actually create one. Regardless of how you define it, while I worked in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, we viewed the digital twin as the tool that takes building information modelling (BIM) to the next level.

Digital Twin Concept

The digital twin is an all-encompassing concept that goes beyond BIM and 3D models to include schedules, contracts, construction documents and more. It also includes software and user interfaces capable of analysing operational data, in order to create 4D (scheduling) and even 5D (budget) models.

Like shipbuilding, construction has always been a linear, labor-, and time-intensive process. A project typically progresses in a series of defined steps:

  1. the owner conceives an asset to build.
  2. the designers design it.
  3. the contractors build it.
  4. and the owners maintain and operate it.

It’s in the first phase where the most critical decisions are made regarding development of a digital twin. This is when owners define which entities within the asset are important to them and thus what needs to be modeled—and at what accuracy—to provide a useful digital twin.

Potential to Improve Workflows

Although BIM was introduced some 15 years ago, the increase in tech adoption didn’t improve AEC industry productivity. Why? Because we didn’t remove the inefficiencies in the process, we just digitized it.

Digital twins, on the other hand, have the potential to actually improve workflows. It’s not about replacing people; it’s about connecting them and helping users understand not only what can happen in the real world but what is happening in real time. This real-time reporting is what makes digital twins excellent for running simulations and trying out scenarios before putting money or resources into a construction project.

Using Digital Twins to Construct an 18-Storey Building

For example, let’s review how Urban One Builders successfully used digital twins, developed by CADMakers, to design a student residence – an 18-storey hybrid mass timber structure – at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The digital twin provided a model to plan out the prefabrication and construction of the student residence building that included a simulation of on-site assembly of the manufactured parts. As a result, the 20-month project was completed 3.5 months ahead of schedule.

The Bottom Line

The digital twins created for the structural and MEP systems, and detailed elements for all other building systems, resulted in project savings of nearly $5 million — approximately 10 per cent of the budgeted construction cost — and a completion 3.5 months ahead of schedule.

Scaling Your Digital Twins

Today, digital twins are helping construction companies mitigate risk and deliver more, through prefabrication and modular construction. However, digital twinning requires investing in a range of reality-capturing technologies, like sensors and drones, and software, so it’s not simple.  You can’t just order it off the shelf and begin creating a digital twin. To simplify the process, Lendlease Group, an Australian-based construction company, recommends the following four steps to help scale digital twins and realize the benefits of modular construction:

  1. Create high-fidelity prototypes. Employ computational (or BIM) design instead of traditional line drawings, this frees up time by circumventing historically intensive design efforts.
  2. Replicate, simulate, and evaluate. This applies to manufacturing and assembly and also to the physical characteristics of the materials used before anything is built. The digital twin can demonstrate how buildings’ components might expand, deform, or react in the real world.
  3. Make data accessible to all. Volumes of data beyond the core design can be digitally stored and shared among all stakeholders and at all stages. Therefore, designers are no longer isolated from the downstream construction and manufacturing processes.
  4. Capture data from the physical product. Once the project is completed, sensors can continue to collect data to inform future designers on how the object performs. For instance, if buildings are composites of digitally fabricated components, then iterative improvements on the design of each component can be driven from this virtuous cycle. Until now, this concept has largely been absent from the architecture, engineering, and construction industry.

AEC Sector Unites to Adopt Digital Twins

While these four tips can help you get started, the AEC industry as a whole has really gotten behind move towards using digital twins. In 2007, AEC industry stakeholders, software providers (i.e. Autodesk, Bentley, Tekla), the American Institute of Architects (AIA), academia, and the General Services Administration (GSA) developed the Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) guide to integrate people, systems, and processes from the beginning of the design phase.

Then, to help companies get the most efficient and effective use out of digital twins, the AIA created a BIM protocol exhibit (E202-2008) that assign specific responsibility for the creation of each model element to:

  1. the appropriate authority (i.e., architect, engineer, sub-contractor) and
  2. the Level of Development (LOD).

The intended result is to have a digital twin that is accurate and authorized for multiple uses across the entire life cycle of the asset.

Start your Digital Shipbuilding Journey

Starting your digital twin journey does not have to be complex. My hope is that this helped you gain a little bit of new insight and clarity into how your company can play a part in moving digital shipbuilding forward.

Next Week

In next week’s post I’ll share how the shipbuilders can create digital processes that promote communication and collaboration and how this approach can benefit our marine industry.

If you have any questions, no matter how small, just email us. We respond to every email.

David Males