Architects, engineers, and other professionals have been using computers to visualize construction projects for decades. From the first digital drafting programs of the 1960s to modern Building Information Modeling (BIM) technologies, digitization is rapidly becoming indispensable to the construction industry. Researchers at the CIC are now using this technology to create digital twins for construction projects—an application that is relatively new to construction, and one that presents opportunities to improve efficiency and decision making at all stages of a building’s lifecycle. The CIC sat down with two industry professionals with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering—Dr. Yasser Mohamed, Professor and Director of the CIC; and Dr. Vicente Gonzalez-Moret, Professor and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Digital Lean Construction—to talk about their recent work with digital twins to learn more about this exciting technology and its applications in the realm of construction engineering.
Traditional computer-generated models of planned or existing structures (such as BIM models) are static representations based on a building’s design. Much like a miniature or a model, the traditional computer-generated model is little more than a visualization tool. A digital twin, on the other hand, is meant to be a dynamic framework that can reflect the conditions of a building or project in real time. As Dr. Yasser Mohamed describes, a digital twin creates a “a parallel digital world” that uses up-to-date data collected from an asset to reflect the actual conditions of that asset in the physical world.
Since their early applications more than a decade ago, digital twins have been widely used in sectors such as aerospace and manufacturing, where they have proved useful in creating digital representations of mechanical equipment that can be used in simulations to demonstrate their performance under varying conditions. Despite their potential benefits, however, digital twins have yet to be fully embraced by the construction industry. Dr. Vicente Gonzalez-Moret remarked that “the construction industry is lagging behind many other sectors [that have] really capitalized on the use of digital technology and digital twins”.
One of the ways in which digital twin technology can benefit the construction industry is by enabling construction professionals to make more informed decisions at different stages of the project. For instance, a digital twins’ connection to real-world conditions enables people to better monitor and predict the dynamic processes of a structure, such as how walls, windows, or different materials are responding to changes in temperature, vibrations, or other forces. Accounting for these dynamic elements provides a more precise picture of the real-world condition of the building, which can inform important decisions regarding maintenance needs, the best way to be energy efficient while still meeting the needs of a building’s occupants, and more.
Digital twin technology can also be a great asset to construction engineers before a building or project is completed. Construction sites are highly dynamic work environments, with people, machinery, and other processes constantly shifting and interacting in ways that are not always easy to predict. Using real-time data capture and predictive analytics, digital twins can provide critical information to construction professionals that can alert them to potential problems before they happen. As Dr. Gonzalez-Moret stated, “digital twins can provide this additional layer of responsiveness and robustness to make decisions in near real time,” which enables construction practitioners and project managers to be “more proactive rather than reactive when [making] decisions.” Much like the way the dashboards of our modern cars light up to warn us that our vehicle requires servicing to remain in good operating condition, a digital twin of a construction project can analyze real-time data to provide critical information required for a building’s owners to make informed and timely decisions, such as predicting potential bottlenecks or hazards to workers when heavy machinery is moved between different areas of a site.
The ability of digital twins to standardize and streamline information also makes them a valuable communication tool. “The construction industry has many different players,” Dr. Mohamed explained. “Owners, engineers, designers, material suppliers, trades contractors, and government agencies…all of these players come together to make the project happen.” Access to a digital twin can make sure that all of the players on a construction project have access to all the same information at the same time, with no need to worry about errors in translation between various systems or potential delays in communication. Real-time, live models of a worksite or project can provide information necessary to ensure efficient staffing, track materials that are present on site and in transit between factories and worksites, and ensure that machinery is where it needs to be when it needs to be there to allow for the most efficient workflow and mitigate disturbances to the urban environment around the project. Currently, when it comes to consolidating information between parties, “the information is scattered between different systems,” resulting in the “fragmentation of planning and control and decision making” that is a constant challenge in construction operations.
As part of the CIC’s current research project titled “Construction-oriented Digital Twins for Multi-Dimensional Planning and Control,” researchers are working towards mitigating this problem of information compatibility. One of the aims of the project is to develop a digital twin that acts as a massive repository of information that the different project stakeholders can contribute to and access all at the same time. Not only would this significantly improve communication between the players directly involved in the construction project, but it would also increase transparency with community stakeholders and provide a clearer understanding of the project’s local impact.
The utility of digital twins is not limited to the construction phase of a building, either. “In an ideal world,” Dr. Mohamed explained, “a digital twin follows the lifecycle of the real-world facility” and reflects the buildings operation, maintenance, deterioration, and eventual demolition. Real-time data capture of a facility with a digital twin means that professionals have comprehensive and accurate data they can use to optimize building operations; heating and lighting, for instance, can be more efficiently managed based on how a building’s occupants are actually using the space, leading to savings in terms of power consumption. Moreover, because digital twins can be used for simulations, the testing of and experimentation with different systems (such as fire mitigation coverage or environmental controls) can be carried out on the digital model rather than the physical building. This can significantly reduce the amount of time a facility has to be shut down for maintenance.
Researchers are optimistic about the future of digital twin technology in construction. Digital twins rely on a variety of other technologies, such as computer vision, sensing equipment, artificial intelligence and machine learning, computer simulation, and predictive analytics. The rapid advancement of these technologies in recent years makes the successful development and implementation of digital twins in the construction industry increasingly feasible.
Dr. Gonzalez-Moret told the CIC that he sees digital twins as a “catalyst”, a means of “connecting not only management processes, and people and culture, but also the layer of digital and smart technology…in just one holistic and very comprehensive framework.” Researchers also estimate that digital twins will be integral to the development of smart cities, paving the way for integrated digitization of transportation systems, utilities, communications, and digital records of the ways in which people use urban spaces, which may one day allow us to optimize the built environment in new and exciting ways.
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