Rebuilding the Construction Sector with Digital Twins

The infrastructure pipeline ballooned to $248 billion in the 2021-22 State and Federal Budgets, and movement to net zero is ramping up across the board.

In an industry nearing capacity, the usual tools won’t be enough to meet the volume of demand. Nor will they bring emissions and waste down to an acceptable level.

Innovation in construction can seem like a daunting task, especially when you consider how our most significant achievements in building occurred thousands of years ago. Take the humble yet enduring scaffold, which was first used by Ancient Greeks.

Solving construction challenges doesn’t mean inventing something as ground-breaking as the wheel. It’s about creating tools to visualise what that wheel can do.

Digital twins allow construction firms to mimic their entire design on a screen. It’s more than a blueprint, it also visualises how the design plays in with everything along the supply chain and construction process. It can spot an obstacle before you can.

As a relatively new player on the construction tech scene, digital twins are starting to scale up to meet some unique project requirements. For example, the CSIRO, in partnership with the NSW Government, is building a digital copy of Western Sydney to better study city planning and traffic. Twins are also being used to simulate bushfires and responses.

Building sustainability with digital twins

Twins plan out more resilient projects which leads to better use of finite resources. More efficient projects are, generally, more sustainable.

Construction accounts for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. And this is just from the emissions we’ve been able to quantify. If you look at the whole length of the supply chain, it’s likely the true number is even higher.

The construction sector is doing its bit to bring down emissions and build a more sustainable industry. Reduce, re-use, recycle is a mantra on every building site, not just to have a smaller environmental footprint, but because builders are seeing the benefits of a bit of creativity.

The insights provided by the digital twin are based on real-time data. Firms can also use this data to predict patterns and make better long-term decisions on factors like energy usage.

This modelling is also a great selling point to any potential buyers or investors. If you know what sort of energy costs and emissions you’re looking at over the next few years, the investment looks much more attractive.

Digital twins make more bespoke, site-specific solutions

To cut costs, builders try and replicate projects as much as possible, and the stalwart terrace house is a perfect example of this. Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel for every project.

But it’s not always possible to simply re-use an old design or existing materials. Plasterboard can lead to mould in high humidity areas. For instance, your build in Townsville has to be different from your build in Melbourne.

If we’re talking about weather, we also need to talk about floods and bushfires. Modelling exists that tells you where to build to best avoid natural disasters, but we also need to be able to know how our builds will react if one occurs.

The individualised nature of digital twins makes for better assets with higher performance. So much context informs how each build will go. If it rains does the soil become unworkable? Will workers be less productive in extreme heat? Is there a road leading to a site prone to delays?

Humans often miss tiny details and are led astray by old habits. In a digital twin simulation, you can see where you can take risks without compromising safety or the integrity of the project.

Lifting projects off the 2D space is a huge change in how we visualise environments. The simulations extend beyond property boundaries, and can deep dive into the processes and functions that make a project work.

Builders operate by the old phrase ‘measure twice cut once’, and tape measures used to be the best innovation construction had. But we’re now measuring more than just panels of plasterboard or flooring space.

Construction firms need to measure energy use, waste, noise pollution, and a whole range of other variables. Much like the trusty tape measure, a digital twin lets you measure these factors with ease – and the scope is almost limitless.

Sumit Oberoi

Sumit Oberoi is the Senior Manager, Industry Strategist APAC at Autodesk. In his role, he is a key contributor in defining and executing strategic construction priorities. Sumit previous role was National Director and Victorian Executive Director with the Air Conditioning and Mechanical Contractors’ Association (AMCA). Sumit was instrumental in the development of the BIM-MEP-AUS Initiative from its inception in 2010. Sumit is a passionate industry advocate who believes in helping industry deliver quality projects through construction innovation. Sumit formerly held directorships with Plumbing Joint Training Fund, Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre, Air Conditioning, Refrigeration and Building Services Exhibition, and Australian Refrigeration Council. He also represented the AMCA at the Australian Construction Industry Forum and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.