Imagine having a complete real-time digital replica of all your building assets… one that provides performance data, specification information and the ability to walk through the building using immersive technology, all while sitting at your desk?
Any housing provider currently undertaking business planning who is trying to balance the competing pressures of providing new homes, managing existing stock sustainably, and meeting building safety requirements post-Grenfell would benefit from this type of interaction with their physical assets. Could the adoption of ‘digital twins’ be the answer?
What is a digital twin?
Digital twins are not new. The term was first conceived over 30 years ago. As technology has advanced, with better visualisation software and the advent of the internet of things (IoT), they have gained prominence in asset management. In a recent Gartner survey, while only 13 per cent of respondents claimed to already use digital twins, 62 per cent were either in the process of establishing the technology or planned to do so in the next year. For example, in manufacturing, they are considered vital in driving operational cost-effectiveness, insight and innovation.
In simple terms, a digital twin is a virtual representation of the elements and dynamics of a physical object. It is not just a blueprint, a schematic or a picture. A complete digital twin will be in perfect synchronization with its physical counterpart and can be visualised with analytics and performance intelligence.
You can even use the twin to predict future asset states and performance by changing the external factors or dynamics. For example, environmental changes or the impact of using different types of materials. The digital twin is a logical model, meaning it potentially draws data from multiple sources to make the digital representation.
How complex does a digital twin need to be?
The short answer is that digital twins don’t need to be complex. Most housing providers already capture a significant amount of data about assets and use that to report performance and carry out maintenance activities – this is a form of a digital twin.
The sophistication of your digital twin depends on the quantity and type of data you want to capture about your asset, whether during design, build or management. We have identified five types of digital twins, each building on the previous one to provide a more complex representation of the asset.
The five types are:
Asset performance: Capturing and reporting asset performance to inform reactive maintenance and proactively help plan future investments.
Asset forecasting and planning: The ability to carry out ‘what if’ scenario planning using a virtual environment that can go through an infinite number of repetitions and scenarios – this is very useful for determining asset performance under different conditions or with different configurations.
Real-time asset monitoring: Sensors are deployed on the asset to not only capture information on the asset’s current state, but also to capture dynamic information such as the environment or current capacity – this is also known as the internet of things (IoT).
Intelligent assets: By capitalising on real-time monitoring, together with the scenario planning data, machine learning can be applied to anticipate problems through analysis of trends and patterns of data.
Asset visualisation: An exact 3D model representing the asset – all of the other data can be overlaid onto this model and when used with virtual reality technology, remote users can immersive themselves in or next to the digital twin in real-time.
Digital twins in the built environment
Building information modelling (BIM) started the revolution of capturing information about a physical object during design, build and operational phases. BIM is a key data input for any digital twin, but BIM alone can’t answer the operational questions facility managers may have about optimising operations. Digital twins are a logical solution for this and for large commercial and municipal buildings in particular, the investment in complex digital twins makes sense. Over the lifetime of the product, the value created is enormous, with some surveys citing productivity gains of up to 25 per cent.
What about housing?
Digital twins have their place in housing because the benefits (as outlined above) are clear. However, there needs to be a balance. Certainly, for large apartment blocks with shared spaces, additional infrastructure and tighter health and safety regulations, there is a strong argument for ‘asset visualisation’ digital twins, but for smaller, standalone properties, the value of creating a detailed 3D visualisation doesn’t add up.
A blended approach is needed, where ‘asset visualisation’ digital twins are created for larger, multi-purpose assets whereas ‘real-time asset monitoring’ and ‘intelligent asset’ twins are used for multiple, smaller assets.
For example, deploying real-time monitoring for security, heating and cooling across multiple assets will still provide enormous insight on their performance, and you can still take advantage of machine learning to provide predictive analysis, but you just don’t need the full 3D model.
The golden thread of data
Digital twins are all about data, and in particular a golden thread of asset information from multiple sources. The more real-time and realistic your twin needs to be, the more data you need to capture and the more visualisation tools you need. For example, new build, decarbonisation and building safety are underpinned by common and interlinked data requirements, and digital twins can be used to make these challenges more coherent and manageable.
Also, thinking about your data in terms of a digital twin is a useful way of visualising the purpose of that information, and this in turn can help to shape your technology strategy and how your organisation coherently captures and interprets information.
For example, the following questions might help you to frame the adoption of digital twins in your organisation:
- What assets require a digital twin and what type do you need?
- How does your IT strategy align with the concept of a digital twin, and are there additional investments in technology you need to make?
- How mature is your data governance and what is the quality of your data – do you have one version of the truth that is available to decisions makers at the right time?
- Can you capitalise on existing ways of working, such as BIM, to create better data?
- How will digital twins inform your strategy – for example, is your focus on operational efficiency or to improve the quality of your housing stock?
Digital twins will continue to evolve as the physical and virtual worlds are increasingly blending. Now is the time to consider your long-term data strategy and how that helps to provide higher quality and more sustainable housing stock.
Alistair McLeod is a director of Gray Fox Consulting.