Digital twins promise to be a key enabler as the construction industry races to catch up with demand for new facilities and new layouts in the wake of COVID-19. Use of such technology, which creates a digital representation of real-world systems and components, is important for an industry seen as slow to adopt digital technology relative to others.
Construction is a complex undertaking, with legacy processes that span regulators, architects, contractors, and building owners. Digital transformation requires finding ways to bridge these divides — not just within elements of each participant’s domain, but also between them.
Still, practical benefits will come from harmonizing the way different groups create and manage data, according to John Turner, vice president of innovative solutions at Gafcon, a digital twin systems integrator.
Growing demand, increased complexity, and more sophisticated design authoring tools will drive the change, according to Rich Humphrey, vice president of construction at infrastructure software maker Bentley Systems. He estimates that the construction software market is currently upwards of $10 billion and could grow significantly thanks to the adoption of digital twins. “The industry is already seeing value in managing risk, reducing rework, and driving efficiencies in the way they deliver projects using digital twins,” Humphrey told VentureBeat.
Change could be far-reaching in an industry that represents one of the largest asset classes in the world.
“There are more than 4 billion buildings in the world today, which is twice as many as websites are online,” said RJ Pittman, CEO of Matterport, a reality capture service for buildings. The rush is on, not only to build more efficiently, but also to increase the value of existing buildings, which today represent a $230 trillion asset class.
Warp speed ahead
COVID is accelerating the demand for digital twin technology. CRB, a construction provider for the biotech industry, recently turned to Matterport to help design and build new vaccine plants as part of Operation Warp Speed. They used Matterport to capture the layout of existing plants, as well as to improve the design and layout of new ones. A digital twin also allowed them to model the workflow and safety properties of the new facilities to identify and rectify any bottlenecks before the new facilities were started.
“Tools like Matterport enable seamless collaboration in the same space because it’s browser-based,” said Chris Link, virtual design and construction manager at CRB. Data is not lost from multiple handoffs between a designer, builder, and owner.
Digital twins also dramatically reduced the need for engineers to travel to existing or new plants. On one project, CRB reduced the number of onsite engineers from 10 to 1, reduced travel costs by 33%, and expedited design by three weeks. One key benefit is that Matterport can capture and harmonize data across different participants and enable people to collaborate within a single platform instead of what was previously a handoff scenario between design and engineering.
Digital twins can reduce the operational expenditures associated with a facility occurring after facility handoff, accounting for 80% or more of the total facility lifetime cost.
“A digital twin is a goldmine to a facility owner because there is currently a significant data loss in engineering and construction,” Link said. Building managers can use digital twins to understand why things were engineered and designed in the manner they were, and this understanding translates to simplified maintenance. For example, maintenance technicians called in to repair a broken pump can utilize the digital twin to understand the design and intent of the pump. They can see the bigger picture, not just the broken pump in front of them.
Reshape, rewire, rethink
Construction-related spending accounts for about 14% of the world GDP and is expected to grow from $10 trillion in 2017 to $14 trillion in 2025, according to McKinsey. The consulting firm also says that about $1.6 trillion in additional value could be created through higher productivity. McKinsey identified seven best practices that could use digital twins to boost productivity by 50 to 60%:
- Reshape regulation — Accelerate approvals with testable plans and enable the adoption of performance-based requirements.
- Rewire contracts — Improved information sharing enables new contractual models.
- Rethink design — New designs could be tested and iterated more efficiently.
- Improve onsite execution — Easier detection of scheduling clashes.
- Infuse technology and innovation — Improve orchestration with IoT, drones, and AI planning.
- Reskill workers — Facilitate new training programs for innovative technologies using VR.
- Improve procurement and supply chain — Better harmonization between current progress and deliveries.
McKinsey predicts that firms could see further productivity gains by adopting a manufacturing system of mass production, with much more standardization appearing across global factory sites. These efforts require greater harmonization between design, manufacturing, and construction, as well as much tighter tolerances. Some early successes include: Barcelona Housing Systems estimates it can reduce labor 5 to 10 times for multi-story homes;
Finnish industrial company Outotec has created a process for small mines that reduces labor by 30%, capital by 20%, and time by 30%; and Broad Sustainable Buildings of China erected a 30-story hotel in 15 days.
Digital twins mind the gaps
“Digital twins are about connecting to real-life objects or information,” said Connor Christian, senior product manager at Procore, a construction software provider. That is a key issue in an area that combines so many different engineering facets.
In fact, the construction industry has evolved a piecemeal approach to managing different data sources, including GIS for location data, building information modeling (BIM) for 3D data, and virtual design and construction (VDC) for project management. This challenges digital twin implementation.
While any job site with sensors or cameras has the potential to create digital twins that allow for access, control, and reporting from those devices, the fact is that not all data is good data, so there must be standards, processes, and verifications in place to help filter out unnecessary data, Christian said.
Different processing stages are involved in turning raw data into the higher-level abstractions required to improve construction processes, said David McKee, CEO, CTO, and founder at Slingshot Simulations and co-chair at the Digital Twin Consortium. For example, Slingshot recently deployed a workflow that combined European Space Agency Sentinel-1 InSAR data from SatSense that looks at ground movement, merged this with infrastructure data, correlated this with traffic data, and presented that back to stakeholders to understand the risks to transport infrastructure.
McKee has found it helpful to adopt IBM Design Thinking approach and Agile software engineering practices for building and deploying digital twins.
“This approach means that even in some of the biggest infrastructure projects, you can start engaging stakeholders within a couple of weeks,” McKee said. For example, his team has recently kicked off a project to improve the transport network in one of the busiest shipping hubs in the UK in the wake of Brexit.
Digital twins can also help fill in the semantic gaps in traditional BIM and GIS tools, said Remi Dornier, vice president of construction, cities, and territories at Dassault Systemes. Digital twins also provide a way to include all the necessary details to perform purchasing and construction assembly. And they can also improve ergonomics. For example, Dassault has been working on a simulation for nursing homes to help eliminate heavy lifting associated with caring for patients.
DevOps for construction
Gafcon’s Turner said the next era of digital twins involves using digital twins to bring a DevOps-like approach to construction. That can transform the entire construction lifecycle.
But teams need to rethink the entire construction and management process to see the highest efficiencies. For example, mass timber construction is a new approach to building that uses standardized manufactured wood products with different properties than traditional wood. It involves gluing small pieces of wood together in the proper orientation.
If teams treat the material like traditional timber, they might see marginal improvements in costs, productivity, and speed. But more dramatic improvement may be possible. The kinship to IT DevOps should be apparent. Digital transformation for construction will mean including test and ops teams earlier in the process. This collaboration can sort out issues like defining assembly steps and how components must be delivered to create, hopefully, far better results.
It is not entirely clear how the construction industry will evolve from a patchwork of different tools to the well-orchestrated CI/CD-like pipelines transforming software development.
But vendors are in the hunt. Leading vendors include a patchwork of companies expanding beyond their core strengths in fields such as GIS (Trimble, ESRI), BIM (Autodesk, Bentley, Dassault), construction management (Procore, and Oracle Construction), reality capture (Matterport and SiteAware), and supply chain management (SiteSense). Digital twins integrators such as Swinerton, Gafcon, and Lendlease Podium help to meld these tools into well-orchestrated workflows that span the design, construction, and operations lifecycle.
This industry’s attempts at transformation are complicated, and a lot of subsidiary elements need to successfully evolve in order for digital twins to gain traction. The recent Katerra bankruptcy underscores the challenges that even high-profile operations face in trying to transform the construction industry.
For one thing, the industry needs better data quality and context, Oracle senior director of new products, BIM, and innovation Frank Weiss told VentureBeat. The technology to gather and integrate data to create an ecosystem of digital twins is available today.
But it comes from many different sources in different formats, which can be challenging for analysis. “It’s going to take vendors, governments, and other stakeholders to work together,” Weiss said.
In addition, the industry will also have to find consensus on what defines digital twins and how they plug into existing processes. “There is still a general lack of understanding of what a digital twin is,” said Procore’s Christian. Right now, any virtual object associated with data is being called a digital twin, he suggested.
And more challenges are in the offing, including the lack of a common data interchange environment that would allow data to easily flow from software to software.
“Even with all the great APIs, cloud-based data, and platform solutions, there still remains a massive amount of data stuck in silos that are not able to be fully accessed,” Christian said.
Today, experts believe enterprises are barely scratching the surface of what digital twins can accomplish, Steve Holzer, principal at Holzer, an architectural and planning consultancy and member of the infrastructure working group at the Digital Twin Consortium, told VentureBeat.
While much attention focuses on the bright shiny side of digital twins, pragmatic considerations are coming into greater play, and guides from other industries are being studied. In the long run, the industry will need to adopt a new mindset to replace most legacy construction methods and processes with the product-driven mindset used in other industries.
“Once we have project thinking replaced with product thinking, construction will be replaced with assembly,” Holzer said.