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A Digital Ecosystem

BY: Frank Weiss

VIRTUAL REPRESENTATION OF BUILT ASSETS IS TRANSFORMING THE WAY WE DELIVER PROJECTS

Utilisation of building information modelling (BIM) across a project continues to expand beyond design related teams, becoming a much broader methodology adopted across more project participants.

This is a positive step in the evolution of BIM, but there is so much more scope.

When we consider how demographics and lifestyles have changed, this has placed greater emphasis on making our built and natural environments smarter, sustainable and connected. Recent events have only served to accelerate this.

We’ve also seen a steady rise in international climate movements such as Fridays for Future (a climate change movement that began in August 2018) as well as changes to our working lives, leading to a greater acceptance and appreciation for remote working.

These changes impact our view of how BIM has to develop to fully embrace a digital twin concept.

BIM is a necessary pre-step which can help the building of a digital replica in the first place. For a digital twin, the connection – right-in-time connections– between the cyber and the physical asset are crucial.

It’s about looking beyond the traditional concept of plan, build and operate (PBO) to something akin to a system of systems which remains “forever”. This becomes the focus of a new vision where we as citizens are in the centre of how the built and natural environment around us should evolve.

The UK-based Centre for Digital Built Britain has driven much of this thinking in its National Digital Twin Programme. All of this points to what we consider as an infinite loop representing how we integrate into the system in the future.

Consider this as plan, build, operate and integrate (PBO-I). As a result, the built asset industry can respond by expanding traditional working practices and embracing digitisation much like manufacturing and other industry sectors have. This will enable digital twins to evolve in and beyond construction to help us build better and live better.

What is a digital twin?

At a basic level, a digital twin is simply a digital representation, a mirror or replica, of a physical thing (i.e. an asset, a process, a system, a sector, etc.). But for the built asset industry, digital twins can play a profound role in how owners manage built assets and how consumers interact with, and in many cases, live and work in, such structures.

The two-way connection between the digital and physical asset is key. As the cost of sensor technology has reduced, internet of things (IoT) solutions are readily available. Objects in a building thus become smart construction objects (SCO), sharing data with the digital twin.

Data transformation tools allow better insights and decisions by using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) or basic data analysis to provide data insights and enabling interventions.

These interventions (recommended actions or changes) are fed back to the physical asset, providing better outcomes. The more that machine-to-machine data exchanges are used, the better the results are.

Data is exchanged between the physical asset and digital twin at right-in-time connections, depending on the purpose of the digital twin. If the digital twins’ purpose is to facilitate operations, real-time data might be required. If the purpose is to facilitate better planning or resilience, real-time data may not be required. The refresh rate of data could be once a week or month.

Ecosystem of digital twins

Consider transportation as a sector with numerous systems, eg: road, rail, metro, air, etc. Many have a physical asset connected to a digital twin. Each of them is a successful system on their own but these individual digital twins can also be connected together.

If you had the digital twin of a train connecting to other transport systems – such as road networks – these digital twins could share information about potential issues with the rail system in a certain area which could lead to a busier road system in the same location.

That issue could be recognised and avoided. Now, imagine what could happen if the built asset industry operated in the same way and connected to other parts of our built or natural world, such as waste, water, transport, energy or green spaces.

An ecosystem of digital twins could result in a city that learns from how we live, combining multiple data sources to continually improve everything that we interact with. The expansion, enhancements, or regeneration of that city would be determined based on the data captured and analysed by the ecosystem of digital twins, enabling it to continually improve and adapt to the needs of its citizens.

Considerations

The physical world has a lot of rules established: things are organised, there are lights, pathways, people etc. We know that because we see it. In the digital world, however, there are still many things which are unclear or not captured as a digital element. All of that has to be defined.

This information has to be properly captured, stored and be utilised effectively. There are tools we use in the built asset world today that can help us achieve this:

■ A true common data environment assists in design, build, and operations

■ Model coordination within the BIM methodology helps unlock new levels of visibility, coordination, and productivity across people and processes

■ Critical design and construction activities can be supported through planning and scheduling solutions

■ Assets can be better managed through project and asset lifecycle management solutions

Through the evolution of BIM, the built asset industry is transforming the way it manages information and data across all project participants. The next phase will be about using this information to connect outside of the project, outside of the industry with other systems and sectors to help improve people’s lives.

About the author: Frank Weiss is the senior director of product strategy at Oracle Construction and Engineering

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