Which is Which?: Using digital twin software in construction

Most contractors work with building models to aid the design and installation of construction projects. As the systems being installed become more complex, so too do the tools to model them. One of the newest software solutions is the digital twin, which offers a way to track the construction and maintenance of a system that can grow with the building, and can be shared by multiple parties.

The concept is fairly simple. A digital twin provides a way to record each step of the construction process for all players involved, and then it links to the building itself in the form of automation or other responses. The idea is to enable a smarter building with reduced maintenance costs or failures in an electrical system, HVAC or other service. The software provides what amounts to a copy of a construction project, and it can be used to test installations and automation systems while identifying problems with the electrical system long after the project is complete.

In fact, the digital twin is like building information modeling (BIM) and 3D modeling, but it connects the digital model, or replica, to the physical world. This may affect construction projects in the future, especially when it comes to maintenance of electrical systems installed years before. So far, digital twins are used primarily in the manufacturing and oil and gas sectors. The construction industry is following suit because it would benefit from the visibility and intelligence this software offers.

A typical digital twin includes the project’s BIM and 3D models, schedules, contracts, construction documents and building intelligence in internet of things (IoT) systems, such as embedded sensors, data from artificial intelligence and machine learning. When it’s done correctly, a digital twin can help predict failures, improve efficiency and provide greater resiliency, while allowing stakeholders for each project to cooperate and collaborate.

An electrical contractor can apply it to a single system or electrical asset or to the whole facility. When it is used to its full capacity, it serves as a coordinated 3D virtual representation of all elements in the building, said Marcel Broekmaat, senior director, product management at Viewpoint Construction Software, Portland, Ore. “The way we think about digital twins is as a spatially organized data set that is the backbone for building operations,” he said.

Digital twins with the IoT

This data set may not include a perfect 3D representation of all of the building’s components, but it does include information about objects and can receive data from IoT sensors that are installed in the building. Specific to electrical construction, these data objects can be used to monitor the performance and maintenance requirements of the building’s electrical system during the operational phase, Broekmaat added. Is a failure imminent? Will modification to one system affect another? The digital twin can help forecast those events.

Many projects combine electrical systems with the mechanical, plumbing, structural and architectural systems in buildings, so these models provide a coordinated 3D representation of what is, or will be, built.

“The opportunities are significant though. Imagine using a digital representation of an electrical component during the design and engineering phase that is prewired for use in a digital twin,” Broekmaat said. “This virtual component would then be ready to start receiving data from the actual component after it’s been installed and activated.”

In this way, the value of the design and engineering effort expands from installation into operation. It also enables a feedback loop that informs engineers about the actual performance of the system they designed, and helps contractors view—and, in some cases, manage—the system they installed.

Digital twins have the potential to replace the traditional three-ring binder. Instead of turning over the collection of drawings, spec sheets and 3D models, a digital backbone can be used by the owner as a dashboard, which provides a control system that goes way beyond what’s available today. For instance, 3D-based visualizations of system performance will help determine energy consumption, identify maintenance issues and input for future optimizations, Broekmaat said.

Focus on outcomes first

But the practical value needs to be at the center of any strategy, said Makarand Joshi, global director—strategy, innovation and standards at Schneider Electric, Andover, Mass. Every industry has some application for the digital twin, and the value gained depends on how it is applied. Joshi urges contractors to think of it as a solution for specific problems, as opposed to adopting a new technology and then finding out what benefits it does or does not offer.

The oil and gas industry has been a good starting point for the technology. Companies use the data to model physical projects, such as new oil fields and equipment. By simulating a drill site, for instance, a company can locate and build the most efficient well and maintain assets used as part of that well. Preventing errors can translate into extraordinary value in such an industry. Industrial manufacturing has followed a similar path.

“Construction is obviously next in line,” Joshi said, adding that it offers the opportunity to digitize the life cycle of a building project and the building’s electrical system long after construction is over. “The term digital twin, in our opinion, is a buzz word that we may want to step away from,” he said. “I think the people need to focus on the outcomes,” and what benefit the system can provide to ensure those outcomes. Then, a user can proceed based on proven benefits.

Joshi pointed to the three stages of a typical project life cycle: design of the electrical system, construction and the system’s maintenance. The twin can carry stakeholders through all three stages.

“As you go through that construction phase, maybe you have some hiccups, some delays, feedback.” Joshi said. “With a digital model, you can better communicate, validate and offer a digital thread that serves as a continuum,” even during system maintenance.

In fact, each time an asset is maintained or inspected, the twin enables an automated, digital capture of each modification that can be stored and accessed by others later. That not only benefits the stakeholders of one project, but it can also help a contractor carry knowledge and experience from one project to the next.

“It’s basically a digital vehicle that allows you to learn, improve, document and transport that model from one site to another and replicate,” he said.

As the building grows

In addition to the design and product improvement, the digital management system—when connected to instrumentation or IoT sensors—can provide enhanced visibility into a system as it operates and help prevent failures. This way, users have the real-world view of the building and its electrical system and the digital representation that they can then query and simulate as the building changes over time.

For instance, if a building’s interior environment shifts, the digital twin can simulate modifications in heating and cooling, people flow and energy use, such as when solar power is installed or when electric vehicle charging stations are added. Building managers can then conduct scenario analysis and test an idea before anyone goes on site. Contractors can thereby provide a valuable source for facility owners to go beyond initial construction to maintenance and analysis.

The value of data, and the kind of data that is needed, varies depending on who is looking at it. Building owners typically seek information about comfort, energy control and consumption. Real estate agents tend to be interested in energy use per square foot or percentage use of the building, Joshi said. Engineers, on the other hand, may be planning the electrical loads.

This should result in reduced labor costs and, in the COVID-19 context, also limit infection transmission by eliminating the need for repair technicians to be on-site. When a technician is at the location, however, digital twins can support the use of augmented reality technologies to overlay important diagnoses and safety information when inspecting various assets, ensuring safety and reducing repair times.

As a result of the pandemic, building owners, architects and engineers are also examining new issues such as healthy airflow, which can be simulated digitally.

“Today we’re already capturing airflow data inside buildings to understand how the air flows,” Joshi said.

As software solutions like digital twins become commonly used, “I think the world is going to be very exciting,” Joshi said. “I see more and more of the simulation aspect being leveraged in the construction industry.”

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