by Barry Cutts, Symetri guest contributor

Are all digital twins equal, or are some more equal than others?

This article provides an outsiders perspective from our Digital Twins workshop and looks at where industry specialists feel the digital twin is in its evolution.

Are all digital twins equal, or are some more equal than others?

Finding value

Symetri invited me to linger backstage at their virtual workshop event on the subject of digital twins that took place on the 22nd of September 2021. “It would be interesting to have an informed outsider’s view on where industry specialists feel the digital twin is in its evolution”, they said.

The first thing that struck me, both in this invitation and during the event as it unfolded, is that the digital twin appears not yet to be a ‘thing.’ It is evolving. It’s not yet something you can contact your preferred vendor and order in. There’s no package, no unboxing, no download, no easy-steps procedure.

The purpose of this virtual event was to gain a true understanding of what AEC professionals believe a digital twin is, and to use this understanding to promote ongoing discussion and collaboration within the AEC sector.

The very fact that attendees were asked what they thought it ‘should be’ indicates that the journey ahead offers considerable choice of routes. It looks as if it will be case of ‘pick your own’; and what greater value can technology have than the innate capability of flexing and adapting to the needs of industry professionals, and their clients?

Adaption = Adoption

As one example, attendees were asked to assess the different purposes of a strategic (static/manual solutions) versus a dynamic (real-time/automated, such as via IoT sensors for energy use, environmental factors, other building systems, occupancy rates and people movement) digital twin. Ideas came thick and fast, but were not necessarily assigned to one category of twin over the other. Security requirements straddled both, for example, as did energy consumption, and carbon footprint monitoring and managing. The use of drones was considered to be valuable in many instances.

Regarding how roles may change through adoption of the digital twin, it appears the jury may still be out. Between today and the digital twin informed future of the built environment it appears likely that educating clients as to its benefits may well be a top agenda item. Adoption will depend on client stages of digital maturity; the same speed-bump occasionally encountered in the use of Building Information Modelling. The ‘siloed department’ syndrome also has an impact.

The digital twin and its forward trajectory are being defined right here right now. Abundant reference points exist. A digital twin is:

  1. “… a virtual model designed to accurately reflect a physical object”. (IBM1)
  2. “… a dynamic, up-to-date representation of a physical object or system. With a complete collection of all data in one place, a digital twin evolves with the flow of real-time input from sensors and more”. (Autodesk2)
  3. “… an encapsulated software object or model that mirrors a unique physical object, process, organization, person or other abstraction. Data from multiple digital twins can be aggregated for a composite view across a number of real-world entities, such as a power plant or a city, and their related processes” (Gartner3)

So, those are the theories, how does it/will it all pan out in practice? That the digital twin traces its ancestry back to BIM was much alluded to by guests at the meeting, many of whom held specific BIM roles (coordinator/manager/director) or digitally focused roles.

A video from Steve Brunton from the University of Washington, Introduction to data science, was presented at the event. Steve refers to the digital twin as a ‘data informed model of a complex system’ and emphasises the importance of ‘the data pipeline that enables the digital twin, for tracking parts, pieces, and processes’. This is the digital thread; the connection between the model/object/representation, and the physical entity.

Souped-up model on steroids

It came out in the discussions I observed that differing views prevail as to what it is, what it can be used for, and what benefits it can bring. These were not disagreements but, rather, consensus—here is an approach coming down the track that promises to take the digitisation of the architecture, engineering and construction trinity to a sophisticated level of digitisation bringing its practitioners and adopters close to omniscience. It’s ‘a souped-up model on steroids”, as Steve Brunton says in his excellent video.

The overall take-out of the various discussions I looked in on was that the digital twin is what you want it and need it to be, and whatever you decide to make of it. So, somewhere between divergent views and unequivocal prescriptions there lies a route not just to clarity but to flexibility on a grand and getting ever grander scale.

Digital twin platforms, whether served by strategic tools and methods or dynamic data or both, are ecosystems, the progeny of the marriage between the Internet of Things and Building Information Modelling; the principles, practices, and technologies of both brought to focus within a specific arena. The IoT offers real-time insight, data collection, the ability to respond to indications coming through via sensors that something needs to be adjusted. Automation and AI coming together, with laser scanning, point clouds, drones and skeletal representations using CCTV captured data.

What it all depends on is the digital thread – getting the data and making sure it continues to be used and acted upon as the asset develops and goes into its lifecycle. It must be a moment in time, it must be real time, and be always changing.

Where to now?

AEC professionals are clearly assimilating the ‘philosophy’ of the digital twin into the way they work in a variety of ways; putting their own interpretations on it. This made me wonder if aspects of technology can be viewed and used subjectively as opposed to objectively.

The answer is an absolute ‘yes’. It’s like a car. The objective purpose of a car is to get you from a place to another place. That’s its function. After that, everything is subjective; where the places are, who goes, what they take, how they digress along the way; let alone the form a car may take—from Del Boy Trotter’s trusty Reliant Robin, to the Lamborghinis and Bugattis of this world.

As Symetri continues to gather input from customers to consolidate a deep understanding of optimum value, the digital twin discussion will stimulate new ideas but to me it seems that the key question will be around what you want it to be.

Ladies and gentlemen, choose your twin.

Explore the evolution of the Digital Twin further by reading our whitepaper: Digital Twins | A human perspective

If you would like to discuss your Digital Strategy, your Digital Twin options and how to set them up, or you
would like some general advice, please book an appointment by completing the form on our webpage: https://www.symetri.co.uk/campaigns/digital-twin-discussion or alternatively contact us via the form below.


References

[1] IBM: What is a digital twin?
[2] Autodesk: Future of Making | Digital twin
[3] Gartner Glossary: Digital Twin

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