Virtual buildings and worksite can mean less risk and greater efficiency.
When General Electric wants to know how soon the fan blades in one of its jet engines will need maintenance, it doesn’t have to pull the engine off a plane and x-ray the assembly. Instead, engineers refer to a digital representation — the engine’s digital twin, created from a trove of real-world sensor data that accurately models the real thing. Digital twins like these have been used in engineering, manufacturing and other fields for decades. Now they’re finding a role in the construction industry.
Many physical assets can be digitally twinned, including vehicles, equipment, buildings, entire worksites — any object or environment that can be sufficiently instrumented with sensors and/or captured by cameras (video, still image, thermal), laser scanners and other devices so its digital version reflects its current properties and state.
Given the wealth of use cases for digital twins, this technology is starting to attract attention from architects, designers and builders with an eye toward increasing efficiency, saving money and streamlining operations.
BIM is a rich resource for defining a building project in intricate detail, but it falls quickly out of sync with the as-built reality. Integrating the model with data from reality capture devices and sensors on and around the physical structure creates a digital twin that’s always a real-time reflection of the project. That allows owners, partners and project managers to easily monitor progress, continuously evaluate the project against the schedule and react quickly to variances.
Twinning makes it possible to rationalize the as-built and as-designed models. With AI in the mix, even seemingly inconsequential departures from the design are automatically tracked. This allows engineers to make decisions based on what is actually built. In addition, awareness of errors and deviations in construction lets the project manager take immediate steps to correct the work or prevent similar problems in the future.
AI can also be used to automatically assess the quality of the build. For example, if reality capture shows that a concrete pour has unwanted cracks, image-processing algorithms can flag the work for inspection by human inspectors.
After the build is complete, contractors can hand over the digital twin to the owner. The twin can help facilities managers plan and implement maintenance and upgrades.
Through the use of equipment telematics, RFID tags, wearable GPS sensors, video feeds from drones, stereo cameras in equipment cabs, and other reality capture devices, it’s possible to create a virtual jobsite, one that allows contractors to monitor all their physical and human assets in order to optimize operations and improve safety.
Site activity can be monitored manually, or it can be monitored automatically using artificial neural networks that can to be taught identify unsafe behavior in real time and flag activity in hazardous zones.
Startups such as indus.ai are creating AI analytics platforms for tracking equipment, workers and safety. According to indus.ai, its “smart and continually learning algorithms monitor and analyze video feeds” to help contractors track progress against BIM models, reduce the risk of schedule delays and ensure compliance with safety standards.
Creating a digital twin is no simple feat. Most contractors lack the knowledge and resources to do it on their own, but more companies are offering digital twin services, especially in certain sectors. For example, Bentley Systems is offering digital twin cloud services for infrastructure projects and assets. United Rentals recently created a digital twin for one of its large power plant customers, complete with every single pipe and pipe fitting and the architecture around it, to facilitate the digital planning of maintenance and turnarounds. Digital twins like this one can also be used for training purposes.
As the construction industry goes digital, the increasing adoption of digital twins for large projects seem almost inevitable. Any technology that enables detailed, real-time insights into a project or worksite and helps stakeholders make timely, data-driven decisions is likely to find its way into use.
Dave Johnson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has been writing about all aspects of business and technology since before there was an internet.