When the City of Las Vegas unveiled a digital twin of a seven-kilometer section of its downtown core in January of 2022, it signaled a high-profile arrival of a technology that’s gained serious traction among creators of physical infrastructure: Digital twin technology in construction.
The municipality’s digital twin was touted as a way of improving energy efficiency, emissions, and traffic management. But digital twin technology has also shown promise when used to track real-time data within individual construction projects and during the entire life cycle of buildings.
So what exactly is a digital twin, and what can the technology do for architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) projects? We break it down below.
What Is Digital Twin Technology?
Digital twin technology marries the physical world with the digital through virtual models that replicate every last detail of their physical subjects. Digital twins are fed real-time data from BIM software and other sources, allowing planners and administrators to analyze building performance data in a sandbox-style environment.
In the Las Vegas example, the digital twin shows data on noise, emissions, mobility, and air quality, among other indicators.
For the AEC industry, digital twins – also known as building twins – provide multidimensional views into building design and performance, from traffic and usage patterns to space utilization and occupant behavior.
The technology can also be used to test various scenarios, such as weather damage from a big storm or significant design changes, without having to experience such disruptive events in the real world.
Digital twins have thus far seen the most uptake in digitally advanced industries such as manufacturing and automotive. But the AEC industry has begun to unlock the value of digital twins thanks in part to the continued expansion of real-time data collection from mobile devices and internet of things (IoT) sensors in built assets.
The U.S. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has called for more investment in digital construction tools, has also encouraged the use of digital twins since passing in 2021.
What Are The Advantages and Types of Digital Twins?
There are plenty of advantages of digital twins over more traditional 2D design technology, including improved resource management, better and more informed decision-making and planning, automated progress monitoring, improved collaboration, more accurate predictions, and more effective safety monitoring.
Digital twin technology has enough flexibility to tackle a range of different use cases, from examining a single component or part of a larger system to how large systems work together. Other digital twins provide a simple visual representation of a physical object while others use predictive intelligence to improve efficiency.
IBM breaks down the various digital twins into four main types, mostly around their area of application:
Digital representations of a single functioning part or component, typically within a larger system or asset.
Models with two or more components or parts working together, allowing data scientists to study how the components interact.
Show how various assets work together to form a functioning system, including asset interactions and even suggested performance enhancements.
Show how multiple systems work together within a larger process, such as a production facility using multiple systems.
Autodesk further explains the types of digital twins by their (and their users’) level of digital maturity, from simple descriptive twins to those able to operate and adjust system performance entirely on their own:
- Descriptive twins provide visual replicas created from live design and construction data.
- Informative twins provide greater integration with sensor and operations data for deeper insights
- Predictive twins combine real-time, contextual, and analytical data to proactively identify potential problems.
- Comprehensive twins use more advanced modeling and simulation data to provide recommendations on performance and efficiency.
- Autonomous twins use AI and other advanced data to learn and make decisions independently.
The type of digital twin you employ in your project depends largely on the scope of what physical object you need to represent digitally, along with your level of digital maturity. Most digital twins representing the built environment are Process Twins or System/Unit Twins.
Do Digital Twins Have Disadvantages?
Despite the enormous promise shown by digital twins, they also have challenges. Some of the most common issues for AEC firms include several long-standing industry issues, such as a lack of data fluency and technology skills, which often hinders the implementation of more advanced technology.
Other firms still use relatively dated 2D design technology, which means companies may need to hire for new skill sets before implementing digital twins. Digital twins require more robust 3D modeling technology along with 2D data.
And although the efficiencies gained from digital twins – in terms of reducing required rework and improving collaboration – can be substantial, adding such technology also means an additional up-front expense for AEC firms.
How Do Digital Twins Work With BIM Software?
Unlike building information modeling (BIM) software, which primarily uses data captured during the planning and design phases, digital twin technology continues capturing data during the asset’s construction and operational phases. This helps improve operational efficiencies and ongoing performance, and can even inform the planning or design of future projects.
BIM data is crucial for initially creating accurate digital twin representations, but digital twins use much more than BIM data: Building twins utilize data from BIMs, 3D laser scanners, drones, cameras, mobile devices, sensors, and other IoT devices.
Some have predicted that digital twin technology and its ability to collect and analyze real-time data through a project’s life cycle will eventually supersede BIM software.
A digital twin is a perfect digital representation of a physical object, such as a building. Digital twins have been used in the manufacturing and automotive industries for years, and have now begun to show real promise in the AEC world. That’s because digital twins work with BIM systems and other data sources to provide real-time insights about a built asset throughout its entire life cycle, and not just during the planning and design phases (as is the case with BIMs alone).
Digital twins can help AEC firms conduct better and more informed decision-making and planning, make more accurate predictions, and conduct more effective safety monitoring.