Digital Twins – Double Trouble or the Holy Grail of Digital Estates?

Posted by Stuart Bell on 17 October 2019

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Digital Twins – Double Trouble or the Holy Grail of Digital Estates?

The industry goes through phases of adopting imaginative titles for ideas and initiatives. Whilst as an industry we've been digitally transforming, over the past year or so we have been fixated with ‘the golden thread’ and more recently there have been wider conversations around ‘digital twins’.

The phrase ‘digital twin’ has been around for some time, but the past few months have seen a meteoric rise in coverage of the subject, noting that it may be the next 'digital disrupter'. But is it an industry driver and the holy grail, or is it just another ‘fad’ that could spell complexity, cost and double trouble?

There have been many descriptions of digital twins, but for me it can be summed up as ‘a realistic digital representation of something physical. What distinguishes a digital twin from any other digital model is its connection to the physical twin’.

On the face of it, the benefits of twins are easy to see – they offer a way of optimising the operation and maintenance of physical assets, systems and processes. By analysing the virtual model, lessons can be learned and opportunities exploited in the real physical twin. They offer the bridge between ‘as built’ and ‘in operation’ providing clients with the ability to assess, in real time, their estates and make decisions based on fact.

However, as with many technological advances, there can be challenges with implementation and operation. So, how do we ensure that digital twins provide a solid foundation for the future of digital estates and avoid the troubles that all too often mean one step forwards, one step back?

For me this comes down to the communication between client and vendor and understanding what the overall objectives for the physical assets and their accompanying digital twins are for an asset owner. Part of this is compiling a team that share these goals and can implement the technology across the business and work directly with management to provide the information they require. All too often systems are procured by one team and left to another to implement and this is where it falls down.

There are going to be challenges along the way, as it will require a new mindset. One issue will be around creating protocols and accepted industry-wide naming conventions – as the 2016 BIM mandate has taught us, this is likely to take time to agree upon and establish! It also needs to be understood that digital twins grow old. Assets portfolios change over time and one of the key challenges will be ensuring the guardian of the digital twin is kept information for any developments so the data can be kept up to date. . For example, minor refurbishment work or alternations to a building – all information would need to be fed back into the digital twin to ensure it continues to be a like-for-like replicate of the actual buildings. Without this, the twin will become out of date and cease to service its purpose. (As a footnote, historically, O&M data handover and Computer Aided Facilities Management (CAFM) solutions have been seen as the asset bibles, but invariably these are neglected and data quality in a CAFM can quickly degrade over time).

One of the key successes for digital twins will be how clients interrogate data and use it for decision making. This could include decisions around energy performance, space usage and the monitoring high value components, which may then reflect their future specification decisions. It could also help to improve service and maintenance decisions, streamlining processes and making cost savings based on information received.

Digital twins are very topical. It clearly has many advantages and benefits, but as with all new technologies, there will be hurdles and stumbling blocks. To try and make more sense out of how the industry needs to move forward with digital twins, GroupBC in collaboration with consultancy PCSG hosted a breakfast debate on the subject, looking at the challenges such as how we measure, name conformity, and how we ensure information is integrated in a meaningful way to ensure clients are getting the best from their asset. It also looked at the fact that even twins grow old, and what needs to be done to ensure that digital assets are properly maintained, updated and managed as use of an estate evolves over time.

For me, digital twins are the holy grail – it is a way to provide clients with the information they need to make informed decisions. Over time, digital twins will enable estate managers the ability to improve how they manage their various properties and implement strategies to improve the quality of their buildings whilst saving costs across product specification, maintenance and alternations. There are going to be hurdles along the way, but the hurdles are more a case of a change of mindset than ‘double trouble’. The potential benefits should make digital twins the ultimate goal for every large estate owner.

Download the Digital Twins Briefing document here