Bentley pushes ‘Digital Twin’ into AEC mainstream

Discussion about ‘Digital Twins’ and national digital twins has grown rapidly since 2017, with Bentley Systems leading conversations and supporting UK research.

The notion of creating a ‘Digital Twin’ of a built asset – a digital representation of the physical asset that is also connected to the physical asset to exchange real-time data – has been increasingly widely discussed in the past couple of years in the AEC sector.

Bentley champions ‘digital twin’ thinking

Bentley logo 2017It is something that I particularly associate with Bentley Systems, as the concept has been widely discussed by the company over the past three years. It was highlighted at the company’s Year In Infrastructure conference in October 2017, but was trailed almost a year earlier in a joint news announcement in November 2016 about the company’s alliance with Siemens. Technology consultancy Gartner included ‘digital twins’ in its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends in 2017, and added impetus was created by the publication by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission of its Data for the Public Good report in December 2017, which recommended a national national twin, an information management framework, and a digital framework task group. In October 2018, the NIC’s Sir John Armitt talked about the report, and there were several ‘digital twin’ announcements at Bentley’s YII event in London (read: Bentley ProjectWise365 extends Microsoft integration), including add Bentley’s Azure-based iTwin™ Services. Soon after, in November 2018, the Centre for Digital Built Britain‘s digital framework task group published a set of guiding principles – the Gemini Principles – laying out the foundations for national digital twin thinking (followed by a roadmap in April 2019).

Greg Bentley, CEO of Bentley (with Antony Oliver behind)In 2019, Bentley’s digital twin momentum appears to be growing. There was more talk of digital twins at the InfraHack event in London in May 2019 (read: Hacking the Bentley iModel platform). The company has also been running some invitation-only TwinTalk breakfast discussion meetings in London (organised by Mark Coates – see previous post – and compered by journalist and YII regular Antony Oliver, the events have focused on digital twin thinking – on 6 June, attendees heard speakers from Ordnance Survey and Google [article by Oliver; some #BentleyTwinTalks tweets here]; on 25 July Sam Chorlton from Data & Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure, DAFNI, talked about the Digital Twin Hub [more tweets here]). Another TwinTalk is scheduled for London next month and a follow-up will take place at the October 2019 YII event in Singapore – at the 25 July TwinTalk, CEO Greg Bentley (right) also highlighted the high number of award entries featuring digital twin thinking submitted for this year’s event (the finalists were announced this week). And before that, on 9 September 2019, Bentley is also sponsoring a ‘Digital Twin Day’ at the Institution of Civil Engineers in London (more details here) – part of CDBB Week.

What is a ‘Digital Twin’?

The term ‘digital twin’ was coined by Michael Grieves at the University of Michigan in 2002 and related to the then 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.

As mentioned above, the concept is now being championed in the built environment. Responding to the NIC’s recommendations, Cambridge’s 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) is working with the Alan Turing Institute and other partners to develop the UK’s digital twin capabilities. It 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.”

‘Digital twins’ and the industry currently known as construction

While individual digital twins are powerful aids to efficient asset development, they will have even greater potential if connected with other systems. Thus the aspiration is to develop a ‘national digital twin’ – an ecosystem of digital twins connected via securely shared data.  In parallel, this aspiration also requires a transformation in how the architectural, engineering and construction sectors think and work digitally.

Digital twin approaches are a key development beyond BIM, which has dominated UK construction industry technology discussion since 2009. And the terminology is starting to change. Clients and project teams were once exhorted to achieve ‘BIM Level 2’, with projects being delivered in compliance with various processes, protocols and standards. Today, the CDBB, the UK BIM Alliance* and BSI are discontinuing the idea of BIM levels and seeking to make information management business as usual, in line with the emerging international standard ISO 19650.

Construction Sector Deal coverWith growing client focus on whole life value (look at the 2017 Industrial Strategy and the July 2018 Construction Sector Deal; also the Construction Leadership Council’s 2018 report, Procuring for Value), 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 and systems thinking to the fore. 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 operating lives, and upon their performance and social and economic impacts being efficiently evaluated.

Bentley/CDBB digital twin research

With Bentley Systems, the CDBB has been working with Cambridge University Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) researchers plus partners from Redbite, Topcon and Geoslam on a pilot project to develop a dynamic digital twin of buildings and systems on the university’s West Cambridge campus (background here).  Bentley’s Bruce Hutchinson told me the overall goals of this activity are to:

  • Demonstrate the impact of digital modelling and analysis of infrastructure performance and use on organisational productivity.
  • Provide the foundation for integrating city-scale data to optimise city services such as power, waste, transport and understand the impact on wider social and economic outcomes.
  • Establish a ‘research capability platform’ for researchers to understand and address the major challenges in implementing digital technologies at scale.
  • Foster a research community interested in developing novel applications to improve the management and use of infrastructure systems.

Work has progressed in three packages. The first saw creation of a building information model of the IfM, drawing on a 3D model of the building created using Bentley technologies, plus a detailed context capture scan undertaken by Geoslam, and 3D geometry and photogrammetry based on drone and vehicle-based scanning and camera devices by Topcon. In parallel, Redbite’s asset management solution, ‘itemit’, was used to develop an asset register, along with asset identification tags, for critical equipment across the IfM. And the team has deployed and tested additional ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) sensors and devices that will help monitor and control the condition and operation of critical assets and the environment in the IfM. Hutchinson said 50 environmental sensors (including temperature, humidity, light), each taking readings once a minute, push data into the Bentley AssetWise solution used on this project.

Bentley Digital Twin

Example of model and operational data viewed using Bentley’s AssetWise platform. The dashboard first view gives a user more comprehensive access to all the available data. Users can create custom KPIs and dashboards to give maximum value, assist with decision support and navigate assets via a vertical hierarchical structure.

The second work package has focused on integrating data from various sources to enable effective data analytics and to drive better decisions. APIs with Bentley’s AssetWise platform form part of the solution, helping integrate data collected through the campus’s building management system – creating a digital operations platform. In keeping with the Gemini Principles, the digital twin uses common data standards such as IFC and is interoperable. This ensures digital twin development is vendor-agnostic and will help identify any gaps and weaknesses in the current IFC schema.

The third work package is focused on developing applications to exploit the captured data in the digital twin.  Potential applications include predictive analytics to improve asset maintenance, better asset tracking, tools to improve equipment utilisation and management, analysis to help reduce energy consumption, and augmented reality support for maintenance and inspection.

Practical examples from research such as this, plus insights and lessons learned being collated by the early owner-operator members of the Digital Twin Hub community (who include the Sellafield nuclear plant), will be invaluable as the Gemini Principles are progressively fleshed out, the national digital twin starts to connect assets and inform decision-making, and the industry currently known as construction embraces whole life thinking.

* In June 2019, I was invited to be a UK BIM Alliance ambassador, and in July to be an executive director and chair of the Alliance’s Technology Group (Mott MacDonald CTO Mark Enzer, chair of the CDBB’s digital framework task group, spoke at the group’s July meeting). With Alliance chair Anne Kemp, I will be representing the Alliance and the ICE’s digital transformation community of practice at the ICE ‘Digital Twin Day’ event on 9 September.

{Disclosure: I have been an invitee to Bentley Systems’ TwinTalks events in June and July 2019, and will again be attending Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure event in Singapore in October at Bentley’s invitation.]

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1 comment

    • Carlos Souza on 8 August 2019 at 5:56 am

    I believe we are reaching a point where the sheer amounts of information that come to address this trend of integrating the entire project lifecycle need AI support.
    This point needs to be further emphasized for a better understanding.
    It’s just a provocative comment.

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