Digital twins can be considered an enhanced version of Building Information Modeling (BIM). Sensors, drones and other inputs are used to collect information about a building. This data is then used to update a digital model automatically. Visualizing computer models is much easier than inspecting actual buildings, and this makes digital twins very useful.
A digital twin can use advanced data analysis and artificial intelligence to constantly learn about a facility. This provides insights on how to better manage the building and its equipment. The concept can also be used to analyze how building modifications will affect performance, allowing better investment decisions.
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The use of digital twins is already common in aviation and manufacturing, but the concept is relatively new in the building sector. Having a digital copy of a real-world asset is useful for operation, maintenance, and investment decisions.
Creating a Digital Twin of a Building
The first step to create a digital twin is like any BIM procedure. The building and its systems are modeled in 3D, and enhanced by adding the properties of individual components. This procedure varies depending on the stage of the building life cycle:
- There is design freedom in new projects that are not built yet. In this case, BIM engineers can modify and optimize the layout of building systems.
- In existing projects, the goal is replicating the current installations as accurately as possible. Laser scanners are very useful for this task.
Once the digital model of the building is completed, the next step is adding the data acquisition technology that will allow automatic updates. Initially this represents a technical challenge, but complex facilities become much easier to manage.
Applications of Digital Twins
Digital twins bring two benefits that are very useful when managing assets like buildings and equipment. They can be inspected more easily than the physical objects they represent, and they allow tests and modifications without real-world consequences.
If a decision has a negative effect on the digital twin, the changes can simply be rolled back. On the other hand, a decision that affects a building or piece of equipment will hurt the bottom line. When building owners have many investment options available, they can use the digital twin to test them. The results can then be compared, finding the option with the highest return on investment.
Digital twins also simplify technical documentation. Instead of dedicating many hours to gather information about the facility, the digital model can provide live data automatically.
- During expansions and major renovations, the digital twin becomes a useful tool for design and planning.
- The data collected by a digital twin is not only useful for property management purposes. In commercial applications, the concept has also been used to improve customer service and increase sales.
When creating a digital twin, the main challenge is the initial engineering effort. The concept combines diverse technologies like BIM, sensor networks and cloud computing. In other words, there is no such thing as a “digital twin software”.
A digital twin provides significant benefits when managing a complex facility. Better investment decisions are possible, and building maintenance can be programmed more effectively. Sudden equipment failures are easier to prevent, since sensors can detect the early warning signs.
The successful application of a digital twin also depends on adequate training. As the digital model of a facility is developed, the engineering and maintenance teams must receive the corresponding training. A learning curve can be expected, but the technical personnel will work much more efficiently after mastering the concept.