The value of the twin: A tale for twin-sceptics…
Not so long ago whilst debating the use case for Digital Twins with a colleague I found myself passionately declaring, “just because we could, doesn’t mean we should!”.
As context my role within the built environment, either by accident or design, has always been to make digital methods of construction accessible for the boots on the ground. I, along with a whole sector worth of peers, had been fighting the good Building Information Modelling (BIM) fight for years. However, just as we were making progress and gaining consensus another buzzword clatters down on us, causing a whole new avalanche of ambiguity and confusion.
I figured that I could either plug my fingers in to my ears and become ignorant or jump on board and help to steer the ship. Reluctantly, I decided “better the devil you know”, and went off on a fact-finding mission.
This was when I came across the Centre for Digital Built Britain’s (CDBB) Gemini Principles. This paper sets out proposed principles to guide the UK’s national digital twin, and I was relieved by how much emphasis was placed on culture and collaboration, and that the document clearly states a digital twin must represent physical reality at a level of accuracy suited to its purpose. Essentially, do not twin just for the sake of twinning.
“what’s the actual problem we’re trying to solve?”
So, nurturing the right culture is critical if we’re going to develop digital twins that add any real value. Finding the “why” for every part of the process, and for every stakeholder, is essential if we want our workforces to collaborate and to trust not only in technology, but in the new procedures that underpin it. That is why the first question when implementing any new digital solution (at any scale) should be, “what’s the actual problem we’re trying to solve?”.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a question that we’re very good at asking, let alone answering. With procurement methods and forms of contract which enable a culture of blame and passing risk down the supply chain, our sector is damagingly siloed and rife with moral disengagement - a “this isn’t my problem” mentality. But successful digital twins are reliant on, and therefore enforcers of, better information management and increased collaboration and transparency throughout all stages of an asset’s life cycle.
An example would be a building owner struggling to meet green building targets because of an inefficient heating system. A digital twin which tracks room temperature, along with the times and days each space is in use, can help determine which zones are being heated unnecessarily. A more advanced digital twin could even manage the temperature of the building remotely, based on the knowledge it acquires during operation. However, to really identify the most appropriate solution for the problem, the building owner should also consider whether the heating system is fit for purpose, and the best way to do that is to understand the design, installation and commissioning process for that system. Essentially, they need access to a digital golden thread of information, introduced as a recommendation in the 2018 Dame Judith Hackitt report Building a Safer Future.
And so, the most basic requirements for the development of a useful digital twin echo the core principles of BIM. If:
· Standard naming (taxonomies), a classification system, and relations (ontologies) have been used
· A structured common data environment has been in place and properly utilised
· Clear and accessible methods of interpreting the information have been established
throughout the whole life cycle of a project, from planning to operation, then the development of that information into a digital twin will be a much more fluid and lucrative process. Only when we embrace digital as business as usual, will we be setting the right foundations for further digital development.
So, my advice for anyone sick to the teeth of all of this tech talk would be that digital twins are coming, and they’re coming to solve real problems, but a digital twin is not a “product” you can buy. The best way to prepare your business for the implementation of digital twins is to focus on collecting and analysing data more accurately, making commitments to follow industry naming conventions, classifications, and standards that already exist, and becoming digitally competent at the most basic level. This will provide you with a strong foundation to build upon. Most of all communicate, collaborate, and solve real problems. The rest will follow in time.