Digital twin technology can be used in all kinds of different industries and situations, and is particularly useful in the construction industry. A digital twin is a digital representation of an intended or an actual real-world physical product, system, or process – this is its physical twin. The digital twin serves as an indistinguishable counterpart to the physical version for any practical purposes, such as modelling, simulation, integration, testing, monitoring and maintenance. The concept and model of a digital twin was first publicly introduced in 2002 by Michael Grieves, at a Society of Manufacturing Engineers conference in Troy, Michigan. He proposed the digital twin as the conceptual model underlying product lifecycle management (PLM), which can be adapted to all kinds of disciplines. The first practical definition of a digital twin originated from NASA, in an attempt to improve physical-model simulation of spacecraft in 2010.
The beauty and simplicity of using a digital twin is that the modelling exists throughout the entire lifecycle of the physical equivalent. So for a building or structural project, this encompasses the create, build, operation and support, and eventual dispose of stages of the physical entity it represents in reality. It can also exist long before the physical equivalent comes into being. The use of a digital twin in the ‘creation’ phase allows the design’s entire lifecycle to be modelled and simulated. A digital twin of an actual building may also be used in real time and regularly synchronised with the corresponding physical system, to log changes, assess the impacts of changes and plan maintenance, upgrades and amends. Project drawings and engineering specifications have progressed over time. They have developed from handmade drafts to computer-aided design and model-based systems, using sophisticated 3D modelling and mapping – and digital twins integrate with and feed into this technology too.
In terms of surveying, and the preparation and planning for construction to commence, digital twins can provide useful information about a building at all stages of its life. Digital twins have been popularised in urban planning practice, given the increasing appetite for digital technology on construction – for example, in the Smart Cities movement. Digital twins are often presented in the form of interactive platforms, to capture and display real-time 3D and 4D spatial data. This enables designers and planners to model urban environments, such as cities.
Digital twin technology has characteristics that distinguish it from other technologies. These include connectivity and the ability to be reprogrammable and smart. Partly through the adoption of building information modelling (BIM) processes, the design process for construction is evolving all the time. Digital twins are seen as an organic progression of this digitisation process. Having the ability to observe a building at any point in its life is an invaluable asset to designers and constructors. Information provided by surveyors can be collated with other data, from other disciplines, to build up an overall picture of a project from design stage onwards.
Digital technologies such as augmented reality (AR) are also being used as tools for design and planning in the built environment, using data feeds from embedded sensors in cities and Application Planning Interface (API) services. Using this data, AR can be used to create augmented reality maps, buildings and data feeds projected onto tabletops, for universal viewing by built environment professionals. The data can also be easily shared between devices, platforms and individuals, and across multiple formats. Everything from a topographical survey to a detailed underground survey can go towards building up a full picture of a construction site and its surroundings. Digital twins are becoming more important for organisations with a portfolio of built assets. Because of this, these organisations would benefit from setting up a geospatial framework, in order to get their assets digitised efficiently and effectively, by good quality geospatial survey companies. A structure’s lifespan will depend on a number of factors, from the material and design to its usage and quality of workmanship. But having the ability to digitally map a structure over its lifetime is changing the way we look at the built environment and the structures we place within it.