Steve Cockerell, industry marketing director for Rail at Bentley Systems on how the built environment can optimise technology to think outside the box
What is digital twin technology and why is it so important?
We have seen the industry progress over a number of years from drawings to CAD to BIM, and if we talk about where BIM is headed, and the advancements that can be achieved through that, I think the next evolution will be digital twins and that is certainly a focus for our work, from Bentley’s perspective.
Digital twins is certainly important, one, because, I think there will be multiple digital twins throughout project delivery of an infrastructure- planning, designing and construction but also in operations and maintenance. From my perspective, digital twins can be leveraged in different ways- to improve quality using technologies like 4D construction, simulation and modelling and also to be able to construct right the first time. In an operational scenario, being able to drive up the performance of an asset and ensure its reliability and availability to the end-users are also focus points.
Where does the digital twin technology fit in and how advanced is its use?
I would say its early days, and many industries far more advanced than infrastructure, but there are many projects that are applying the idea of digital twins from small-scale to city-scale developments.
Information from digital twins can be leveraged to make better decisions and simulate how infrastructure will perform in case of a calamity like a flood or a storm. And then, it can be used to calculate how the performance of that infrastructure will affect, in case of a smart city, other infrastructure. This can be taken forward to assess the performance of other assets such as transport, for example. So, for an organisation like the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in Dubai, they can have huge gains by connecting all the data and information to simulate scenarios and prepare for any event.
For example, in Northern Europe, cities like Helsinki are building a city-scale digital twin and planning activities such as enhancing the environment for residents and visitors and emergency planning. It’s definitely something that is growing in the industry and when technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning and ultimately artificial intelligence (AI) as well as sensors are added to it, it can mature in the market.
Q) What are some of the wider applications of digital twins around the world?
The deliverables of BIM tend to be snapshots at a point in time, whereas the big difference with digital twins is the continuous synchronisation it offers, so one can wind forwards and backwards through the design or operation of an asset.
An example of this is of a railway station in London. With the use of digital twins, authorities are looking at pedestrian simulation and how the station is performing based on the people that are moving through it. And then, in case if this station feeds a concert, how does increasing 50,000 more people in six hours change how that infrastructure performs. So, in the end, the use of information from sensors that measure heat or vibration that are built into infrastructure is delivering that insight to do things in a certain way.
Sustainability is another component of this technology. The Skanska, Costain and STRABAG (SCS) Railway, the second high-speed railway system in the UK has followed the premise that whatever is designed and constructed will generate carbon. Hence, they have linked their designs with cost-estimation and carbon calculation to be able to make different, sustainable decisions when they design and construct. They are keeping a close eye on the materials used and the process followed and looking at the sustainability impact of that decision and connecting that and using analytics to work out the best way to achieve targets set out for sustainability.
So, there are different applications of digital twins and there are different ways on how information can be leveraged to think outside the box and change the outcomes.
How do you see the future of the digital twin technology evolving?
I think the highlight is that with the amount of work that exists, we can’t carry on doing what we have always done, something has got to change, and we have got to work smarter. Because, we can have the best technology in the world, but if we don’t know what to achieve from it and haven’t got everybody moving in the same direction, we are going to fail.
Just to take it to the natural progression, for example, in Dubai, the objective is for the city to be a happy city and all of this technology contributes to the happiness of people- the residents and visitors who are using that service or infrastructure.
And I think that we are all on a journey with our understanding of BIM and as many definitions there were for BIM five years ago, there is an equal or greater number of definitions for digital twins today and who knows what’s coming around the corner!