The number of digital twins in use in construction is limited, so what will help the sector to realise their potential? 

Digital twins have fast become the poster child of the construction industry’s digital transformation. Everyone is talking with great excitement about virtual representations of assets, process and systems – a true convergence of the physical and digital worlds.

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But, like BIM previously, the term has become somewhat of a buzz word, thanks in part to its ubiquity, and there’s much confusion about what digital twins actually are and how they can drive positive change within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector.

Existing definitions of digital twins are quite broad, which have helped capture our attention and imagination, but may have also oversimplified a complex and relatively new development in the design, build, operation and maintenance of infrastructure assets.

Yes, the tech needs to be in place, but this alone will not deliver the potential outcomes that a digital twin can provide

Let’s start by clarifying that a digital twin isn’t just an information model, or a one size fits all solution that resides on a single technology platform.

For me, a digital twin is an application that helps integrate people, processes and data across an organisation to drive intelligent decision-making. A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical asset that has the potential to respond to changes, predict future states and outcomes though the analysis of real-time data, and simulate physical and operational characteristics of an asset to enable accurate predictions.

I use the word ‘potential’ for two reasons: firstly, there are a limited number of digital twins in use within the construction sector, and as such, the benefits have not been fully realised yet. Secondly, this potential can only be realised if clients, partners and the wider industry shares an understanding of what digital twins are, and a commitment to use them to change the way that we work.

In order to gain an insight into how transformative digital twins can be, we can point to the manufacturing sector which has embraced the use of data and technology to revolutionise the production process. By using digital twins of physical assets and lean manufacturing methods, manufacturers can run simulations to better understand product reliability, efficiency and lifecycle costs. Products can then be developed and optimised with modifications before a potential problem arises or escalates. Quality, productivity and waste reduction can also be optimised whilst safety is reduced to a level that is as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP).

For the construction industry, digital twins clearly represent a potential game changer as we continue to grapple with productivity challenges and a patchy record in project delivery, but we’ve some way to go before we become a shining example for other industries.

Looking back at BIM again, it’s fair to say that it has taken time for us to truly accept that BIM isn’t just a piece of software but a whole methodology and approach to the entire infrastructure lifecycle which demands a change in behaviours.

Digital twins are no different.

If there’s one thing we can take away from the manufacturing industry, it’s the level of collaboration enjoyed across a supply chain which shares data and information seamlessly. Information management – and access – is one of the key components to successful implementation of digital twins: – it’s the structure that holds everything together and the foundation from which data can generate knowledge. Yes, the tech needs to be in place, but this alone will not deliver the potential outcomes that a Digital Twin can provide.

For the construction industry to get ahead, we need to accept that we are fragmented in places and will need to overcome a few hurdles. From traditional contracts which are not conducive to information sharing, to operations and maintenance activities which aren’t yet digitised, the sector is currently beset with obstacles that threaten to hinder positive and lasting change.

Contrasting priorities from across the supply chain also serve to complicate matters, with designers developing a design for intent; contractors expecting a design that is fit for construction; and operators and maintainers expecting as built information that will help them complete daily tasks.

It’s clear that we need to adopt more collaborative alliancing models and shift away from transactional working approaches if we’re going to realise the full potential of digital twins and increase the predictability of major infrastructure projects.

Yes, this is a big ask but we can certainly achieve it.

Ibrahim Atta-Apau is a director at Atkins