Lessons in the mirror: How digital doppelgängers maximize profit and performance

Digital twins have now leapt the chasm from concept to broad viability. Here's why these 3D modeling and simulation tools have become a must-have.

illustration of city scene

Mark de Wolf

February 17, 2022

min read

How do you diagnose a systems failure when the equipment is 200,000 miles away? In 1970 the leaders at NASA Mission Control had to scramble to find the answer when Apollo 13 was disabled by a mid-flight explosion.

They pivoted quickly, setting up their top engineers on a high-fidelity simulator to test repair scenarios in what would eventually be considered a forerunner of the digital twin—a digital environment used to model likely outcomes on the offline world. Their efforts worked: The crew returned safely back to Earth less than a week later.

That was 50 years ago, but even if using computer-driven models to solve problems isn’t new, the arrival of increasingly sophisticated 3D simulations is dramatically expanding their application.

Back on Earth, today’s digital twins are helping AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) firms build parallel virtual and physical assets. The business value? Better results.

By combining real-time data, physical dependency models, and intelligence from a variety of systems, new projects can be simulated across their lifecycle to predict and improve real-life performance—and profitability.

As the fallout from the pandemic continues to accelerate digital transformation, that capability is taking the industry by storm.

Improving management at the micro level 

Industry experts say that’s exactly what construction and property management leaders have always wanted—an operational crystal ball that delivers pinpoint visibility of KPIs across the lifecycle of an asset.

Previous 3D solutions weren't user friendly enough to use outside of specialty architecture and engineering fields, but today's digital twins are more aligned to building performance and portfolio management. This makes them much more accessible for client interpretation.

Broadening the audience application has given digital twin technology a chance to show its value. As with many other technology tools, the stark necessities of pandemic and post-pandemic life allowed digital twins to shine.

Building sites were among the first to be allowed out of lockdown, although it was anything but a return to normal. New rules for personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing necessitated a complete project management rethink. As much work and fabrication had to be done off site as possible.

Digital twins helped ease that process.

“With digital twins you can have a one-to-one fidelity with the physical building right down to the bolts, even before you build,” said William Ruh, chief executive officer of Lendlease Digital and a member of the Digital Twin Consortium steering committee.

Speaking to RTInsights in 2020, he explained that having a virtual copy of a building allows you to optimize it. That is changing the AEC industry “in the same way we’ve seen aviation and other industries impacted by their use of digital twins.”

Nicolas Mangon, VP of AEC strategy at Autodesk, says “before COVID, clients were telling us that digital transformation would be a five-year process. Under COVID, they did it in six months.

“What's happened in the last few years is that they've realized how valuable digital twins can be in the post-construction phase. Something like 70% of the cost of ownership happens after a building becomes operational. Suddenly having a virtual copy you can use to control costs and improve the building user experience has been a kind of revelation.”

Preparing for change at the macro level 

Digital twins can also help AEC firms address megatrends like rapid urbanization, onshoring of manufacturing capacity, the impact of the Biden administration’s national infrastructure plan, the European Green Deal, and pan-national regulatory changes that will see harmonized building codes designed for future pandemics.

The impact of any one of those could be sector-defining, which is one reason behind the formation of the Digital Twin Consortium.

The group was formed to establish a single definition of digital twin to dispel any market confusion. With that objective now achieved, they’ve moved on to promoting the concept of digital twins within the AEC and manufacturing industries, and developing technology standards to encourage greater interoperability and cooperation between partners.

Microsoft is leading the consortium’s efforts on a common storage solution for IoT data pulled from building sensors. Autodesk is leading efforts around a common digital twin platform. Other initiatives are being led by AEC industry giants like Lendlease, and technology and engineering leaders including Dell, Northrop Grumman, and GE Digital.

Setting the stage for mass urbanization 

Autodesk’s Mangon says that as digital twins expand their footprint, they’ll enable the AEC industry to guide the population shift to living in cities and help ensure it happens in an organized and sustainable way.

Today, there are 3.5 billion people living in cities, he says. “In 30 years, that number will double. It took us a few thousand years to build everything we have now. In the next 30, we’ll need to add the equivalent residential and commercial capacity of all the cities that exist today.

“The AEC industry won’t be able to achieve that without software to streamline and simplify planning and design. But even before that phase begins, we will need to know which buildings and materials perform best—and why.”

The final frontier? 

Accenture’s Technology Vision Report named digital twins one of the five defining technology trends of the last year. Researchers said they’ve become integral to a growing industrial “metaverse” where whole office towers, factories, supply chains, and product life cycles are represented digitally.

“It’s ushering in new opportunities for enterprise leaders to bring data and intelligence together, to ask and answer big questions, then rethink how they operate, collaborate, and innovate.”

That’s a long way from the days of Apollo 13, whose original twin was created when computers couldn’t even display images. That solution was little more than a blinking diode compared to what's available today, yet it was powerful enough to bring a broken spaceship home.

From those beginnings, perhaps it’s no surprise that the next frontier for digital twins is to solve planet-sized problems. European researchers are using the technology to model global climate outcomes and inform EU green policymaking.

What’s a digital twin?

AEC companies can now generate super-realistic virtual versions of the buildings they create, each one perfectly twinned to its steel, glass, and concrete original.

Digital twins are the logical evolution of 3D modeling, taking the concept beyond the creation of on-screen mockups that add depth to a rendered image. A twin receives real-time data from the built asset it mirrors.

BIM, or Building Information Modeling, is the best process on which to base the creation of a digital twin. A hyper-realistic BIM-based model will let users preview how a building will look and feel once it’s constructed. In the design phase, this can be used in place of paper drawings. Instead, architects will have a 3D render that lets them not only see but “experience” a new building—inside and out. Engineers can then use the BIM model to experiment with different structural elements and materials to test their performance.

When the real-world building finally opens its doors, a BIM model turns into a digital twin of the built asset. The digital twin exists in symbiosis with its doppelgänger, receiving data from multiple sensors and systems to mimic the physical structure’s actual behavior in real time.

Cross-industry cooperation 

Reflecting how important digital twins are becoming to operational models in multiple industries, leaders from across AEC, manufacturing, healthcare, and natural resources have come together to form a new cross-industry body to establish a consistent vocabulary, architecture, security framework, and interoperability model for digital twin technology. 

The Digital Twin Consortium aims to create a global ecosystem of users and speed up digital twin adoption by demonstrating the value of the technology. Members set its technical guidelines and taxonomies, publish reference frameworks, develop requirements for new standards, and share use cases and best practices. /p>

The consortium’s membership is scaling rapidly. It’s open to any business, organization, or public sector entity with an interest in digital twins and applying the technology to their operations and supply chains. 

Mark de Wolf

About Mark de Wolf

Mark de Wolf is a freelance journalist and award-winning copywriter specializing in technology stories. Born in Toronto. Made in London. Based in Zürich. Reach him at markdewolf.com.

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