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Why are digital twins important for UK infrastructure

In construction and infrastructure projects, ‘digital twin’ has become something of a buzzword in the past couple of years, particularly as discussions about building information modelling (BIM) and wider industry digital transformation have matured into thinking about whole life operation and maintenance of
built assets.

However, the phrase is neither new nor unique to construction.

The concept: connecting virtual and real systems

The term digital twin was coined by American academic Michael Grieves at the University of Michigan in 2002 and was proposed in connection with the emerging concept of product lifecycle management.

Grieves proposed that a digital model of a physical system (a car for example) could be created as a virtual entity on its own, containing information about the physical system, and be linked with the physical system through its entire lifecycle. Data then flows between the real and virtual space to keep the twins synchronised.

To continue with the automotive example, showing how this sector today capitalises upon new technologies including the Internet of Things (IoT) and high bandwidth telecommunications, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes F1 has over 200 sensors connected in real-time to pitlane telemetry providing over 300GB of performance data during a race to the team’s pit crew.

While not described as a digital twin, the idea of creating a virtual system to mirror a physical system has a longer history. Famously, when disaster struck NASA’s Apollo 13 spacecraft in 1970, engineers on earth were able to use a digital model to test possible technical solutions, with the chosen option implemented, enabling the spacecraft and its crew to safely return.

UK digital twin development

In 2017, technology consultancy Gartner included digital twins in its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends, and UK interest in applying the concept in the built environment grew following the December 2017 publication of the National Infrastructure Commission’s influential report Data for the Public Good.

This described the opportunities of applying digital twin thinking to the UK’s infrastructure, and recommended that the then newly created Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain (established as a successor of the UK BIM Task Force to lead the next stage in the UK construction industry’s digital evolution) should work with the Alan Turing Institute and other partners to develop the UK’s digital twin capabilities.

The CDBB describes digital twins as “realistic digital representations of assets, processes or systems in the built or natural environment. Essentially, they enable better decision-making throughout the whole-life of assets and systems – their delivery, operation, maintenance and use.” Critically, the digital twin is connected to the physical twin so that data updates flow between the two.

Individual digital twins are powerful aids to efficient asset development but have even greater potential if connected with other systems. The aspiration is to develop a ‘national digital twin’; an ecosystem of digital twins connected via securely shared data. Within a year of the NIC’s recommendation, the CDBB’s Digital Framework Task Group published the Gemini Principles (November 2018), setting out the high-level definitions and principles for guiding the development of the framework and the national digital twin.

BIM and the digital twin

As mentioned, digital twin approaches are seen as a key development beyond BIM – which has dominated construction industry technology conversations for much of the past decade. And there has been a related but subtle change in the industry rhetoric around BIM.

At one time, clients and project teams were being exhorted to achieve ‘BIM Level 2’, with projects being delivered in compliance with various processes, protocols and standards. And the famous Bew-Richards ‘wedge’ suggested that continued development would see projects move towards ‘BIM Level 3’ and beyond. The CDBB is phasing out the idea of BIM Levels and seeking to make information management business as usual.

In line with government and industry exhortations to focus more on whole life asset outcomes, industry professionals are being encouraged to look beyond the ‘design’ and ‘build’ stages, and to apply processes and technologies that also support ‘operate’ and ‘integrate’ – with digital twin approaches very much at the core.

So while BIM may provide the foundation of the digital twins of new buildings or infrastructure assets, their value and utility will depend upon both the physical and digital assets being efficiently maintained and updated as necessary throughout their lifecycle.

Digital twins and infrastructure

The NIC report and its advocacy of digital twins makes very interesting reading. “Data for the Public Good” highlights the need for action in three areas: collecting the right data, setting standards for data, and sharing that data securely. At eviFile, we are strong believers in all three, as are our UK infrastructure provider customers.

The NIC makes a strong case for collecting and sharing data: “Having more information or data about infrastructure assets enables them to be used more productively. Knowing where all the country’s infrastructure is and how it is being used will help decision‑makers and operators to plan and maintain these crucial national systems better.

“But simply having the data is not enough. It needs to be shared across the public and private sectors with the appropriate levels of secure access to enable its value to be fully leveraged for public benefit.”

We see eviFile as a powerful complementary technology. For new infrastructure, it can be used during asset delivery to provide important visual evidence of construction and equipment installation processes and workflows. It can then be used for systematic through-life inspection and monitoring during maintenance, and for refurbishment and modernisation, helping maintain a location, time and date-stamped visual record of asset conditions to augment data captured by meters, sensors and other systems.

Development of the national digital twin is seen by the NIC as a 10 to 30-year programme, perhaps recognising that the UK already has extensive existing infrastructure assets with little or no digital information about them.

Assurance software can also be used to capture data in the field, and help operators build up detailed records of their legacy assets. These records can be rapidly and securely shared with authorised partners to inform decision-making about future investment in our national infrastructure systems.

So, while digital twins may very much be a 21st century idea, we have the technology to capture rich digital information about infrastructure assets from previous centuries, and to incorporate that into our investment planning to build and operate assets into the next century.

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