What Is a Digital Twin? 

what is a digital twin and how to create one in construction

Any time you have a chance to create a digital replica of something that you’re making before you embark on making it in the physical world, it allows you to increase the likelihood of your achieving your desired project outcomes. Noting this, you might see why digital twins are gaining traction in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, notably driven by a company’s Digital Team.  

But what is a digital twin, and why should all construction professionals care? Let’s take a more detailed look.  

What Is a Digital Twin? 

So just what is a digital twin? As you may have already guessed, a digital twin is an exact digital replica of something that exists in the physical world. 

 You might be wondering, well, isn’t that the function of BIM? Not always.  

 Often, BIM is an important component of a digital twin, but the concept of a digital twin is much broaderBIM might nearly replicate the physical asset, but there are some key differencesThe main difference between a digital twin and BIM is that the former is actually connected to a twin in the physical world. This is what is called a “digital thread.” According to Facility Executive magazine, the digital twin is specifically designed to serve as the bridge between the physical and digital worlds through the use of sensors to collect data, in real-time, about a physical structure. The data that’s collected helps create this digital duplicate of the structure in question, which can help a project team better understand, optimize, and manipulate it. Ultimately, it can lead to a better, more profitable project. 

So, what insights can you gain from the creation of a digital twin? Simply put, when created, project teams and asset owners can learn more about the performance of an asset, thus making smarter decisions and improve predictability in how they deliver projects. 

A Brief History of Digital Twins 

 When asked to provide my views on the growing demand for digital twins, I took the opportunity to conduct some research on where the concept originated.  In other fields, they’re not a new concept and they’ve been utilized in the manufacturing industry for many years. It’s widely believed that the very first digital twin was used in conjunction with the Apollo 13 mission back in 1970, although it clearly wasn't referred to as a “digital twin" at the time. I’m certain that had it not been for the use of digital twin (replicating reality before it happens), that space mission could have had a much different outcomeThe ability to use digital twins to  test solutions  from the ground level behind a computer is one of the most important elements of utilizing digital technology to guarantee a desired outcome. 

I also discovered that Dr. Michael Grieves, a chief scientist of advanced manufacturing at the Florida Institute of Technology, was the person responsible for creating the concept of a digital twin in the capacity it’s known today. In fact, he’s believed to have proposed the digital twin as the conceptual model underlying product lifecycle management, or PLM. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that Dr. Grieves' concept was actually called a digital twin, when NASA’s John Vickers referred to it as such in a report. 

What Does a Digital Twin Include? 

Now that we know a little bit about what it is and its history, you might be wondering what is included in a digital twin when it comes to the design and built environment. As we noted earlier, a true digital twin records every single step of the construction cycle, so there is lots of data packed into each one. This data includes: 

  • BIM and 3D models 
  • 2D information 
  • Schedules 
  • Contracts 
  • Construction documents (i.e., submittals, change orders, RFIs, etc.) 
  • Operational data collected by the embedded sensors 
  • Data from AI and machine learning technology 

WhAre Digital Twins Used? 

Creating a digital twin requires careful consideration, so it’s important to be clear on what the benefits are  

Here’s a look at top-level benefits of digital twins in the AEC industry: 

  • Reduce risk: Digital twins can help identify, predict, and analyze risk. In addition to reducing risk on a job site, digital twins can also help facility managers identify potential risks for building occupants and visitors 
  • Improve project efficiency and quality: Thanks to data collected from AI and machine learning, digital twins can help project teams streamline operational efficiency and improve construction quality. Furthermore, jobsites can run smoother with real-time information automation. 
  • Aid decision-making: Simulations can help project stakeholders make better overall decisions regarding changes. 
  • Lower costs: Digital twins can reduce construction costs, which can help improve a project's profitability. Thanks to better risk mitigation and predictions, certain costs can be avoided entirely. 
  • Enhance coordination: Improved coordination potential is another benefit. Digital twins can allow project teams to have a greater overall understanding of how systems interact and where there are potential conflicts. They can also improve sequencing for installation and can help connect the office with the field, improving overall day-to-day operations. 
  • Provide security: Digital twins provide security of data and information, in addition to physical security with better identification of safety issues.  

Challenges of Creating a Digital Twin 

Despite the benefits associated with the implementation of digital twins on construction projects, like any new technology, there are some challenges to creating one. The three challenges that loom the largest are technological, monetary, cultural, and industry structure. Here’s a closer look: 

  • Technological:  To create a digital twin that’s going to drive value — and not a be a burden — the right technologies and systems must already be in place. Getting these systems up and running and then maintaining their performance can prove to be an obstacle for some companies if proper steps are not taken to ensure its success. 
  • Monetary: Yes, the return on investment (ROI) from implementing a digital twin on your next project has the potential to be great. However, there comes an upfront cost with doing so — so you have to spend the money before you can save the money on a project. In an industry with notoriously low margins, this can be difficult for some companies to wrap their heads around, as they're essentially betting on an unknown upon implementation. 
  • Cultural: What’s your company’s mindset, core values, and overall culture? Arguably, this is the biggest hindrance when it comes to adopting new innovative technology on a jobsite, even more so than the money and adopting the technology. If your company isn’t open to change and continuous improvement, new initiatives such as digital twins are unlikely to gain any traction. That being said, forward-thinking companies likely to stay ahead of the competition, are increasingly looking to adopt innovative approaches to improve their operations 
  • Industry Structure: The Construction Industry is extremely fragmented. A key challenge is that the investment in creating a digital twin during the design and construction phases doesn’t always directly benefit those who are tasked with creating and populating the data. Owners, therefore, must be invested in the process and commit to their teams creating a digital twin that yields the right results. 

Unlocking the Success of Digital Twins 

Digital twins are like anything in the sense that you’ll get out of it what you put into it. Hence, if you buy into the digital twin concept and make every effort to ensure its success, it’s more likely to benefit the overall project it’s being implemented on. 

So how can you unlock the success of a digital twinHere are the components that help make digital twins a success.    

Visualization: BIM 

Digital twins enhance BIM. Models on their own often can’t provide the same level of response that digital twins can. On this note, make sure that you’re paying close attention to the changes in real-time that your digital twin is showing. When a BIM-centric digital twin is used, the model has all the same data as the physical construction site would, which improves knowledge on constructability.   

When models are used in the handover, a digital twin can provide the real-time operational response that models can’t do on their own – this is only true when it’s paired with the Internet of Things (IoT), which brings us to our next component.   

Living Data: IoT 

Much like how your BIM and digital twin should complement each other, the same is true with your digital twin and IoT. IoT helps to create a digital thread that connects the twin to the actual physical structure that you're building. Since sensors are collecting data in real-time, a digital twin is constantly updating working conditions and helping project teams better understand how a building is operating. The simulation environment that a digital twin can provide can help an operations team address any issues more effectively and efficiently.   

Data Structure: Common Data Environment 

Are you managing a digital twin in the right system? If you want to maximize its value, you should be. A common data environment, or CDE, can assist when it comes to optimal asset management for digital twins. These systems provide the right standards and systems to avoid data silos and duplicate information, creating a single source of truth.

Connection: Connected and Integrated  

A digital twin should be connected and integrated if you want to have all of the appropriate data accurately and correctly inputted in the digital world. Make sure that the correct integrations and systems are there to permit data and information to flow without barriers between various teams and project phases.  

Analysis and Prediction: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning  

Artificial intelligence, AI, and machine learning play a big part in tapping into the full potential of a digital twin, as each provides the power to put the data that has been collected to meaningful use. Digital twins open doors to analyze unrelated data sets to find new opportunities or risks. This can also help increase operational efficiency and help identify any threats faster and easier.   

Build Your Project’s Twin  

Are you looking to get started creating your owndigital twin? Having the right technology in place is essential. And while thinitial investment in the right technology can be high, the payoff can be more than worth it in the long run.  

To learn more about how a connected construction environment can provide the right tools to create digital twins for your projects and enhance your company's operations, request a demo of Autodesk Construction Cloud 


Matt Keen

Sr. Industry Strategist, Autodesk Construction Solutions