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Digital Twins Are Primed To Revolutionize The Infrastructure Industry

How innovation, efficiency and intelligence across the infrastructure ecosystem is finding a kindred spirit in digital twins.

Elaborating on some points from my previous post on building innovation ecosystems, here’s a look at how digital twins, which serve as a bridge between the physical and digital domains, rely on historical and real-time data, as well as machine learning models, to provide a virtual representation of physical objects, processes, and systems.

Keith Bentley of software developer Bentley Systems describes digital twins as the biggest opportunity for IT value contribution to the physical infrastructure industry since the personal computer, and they’re used in a wide variety of industries, lending enterprises insights into maintenance and ways to optimize manufacturing supply chains.

By 2026, the global digital twin market is expected to reach $48.2 billion, according to a report by MarketsAndMarkets.com, and the infrastructure and architectural engineering and construction (AEC) industries are integral to this growth. Everything from buildings, bridges, and parking structures to water and sewer lines, roadways, and entire cities are ripe for reaping the value of digital twins.

Here’s a look at how digital twins are disrupting the status quo in the infrastructure industry — and why IT and innovation leaders at infrastructure and AEC enterprises would be wise to capitalize on them.

Redrafting the Business Model

For decades in the AEC industry, work has been performed on a project-by-project basis using computer-aided design (CAD) and, more recently, building information modeling (BIM) software to create specific 2D and 3D deliverables. The industry is now moving toward integrated suites of tools and industry clouds, which open the door to new business models, industry ecosystems, and more collaborative ways of working.

As the use of digital twins advances, new possibilities for annuity revenues are opening up as well for AEC firms to manage and maintain infrastructural digital twins for their clients.

These new business models are disrupting the infrastructure industry and reconfiguring opportunities as the industry adjusts to new ways of working. Digital twins will likely do for the infrastructure space what various platform models have already done for music, books, retail, and gig economy services.

Due to the cloud-based platform business model, possibilities will open up not only for operations and maintenance services around core digital twin models but for value-added digital services wrapped around these twins, such as visualization, collaboration, physical and cybersecurity, data analytics, and AI-enabled preventative maintenance.

Plus, infrastructure developers can partner with digital twin providers and the surrounding ecosystem of service providers to benefit from the sale of the physical asset as well as the provisioning of ongoing digital services via digital twin models. Over time, these subscription-based services could add a significant amount to the original sale price. For example, a real estate project of 100,000 square feet could net $1 million in add-on revenues over five years from digital twin-related services, and nearly 80% of an asset’s lifetime value is realized in operations.

Digital Twin Use Cases & ROI

The full suite of digital twin use cases encompasses many areas, but one of the largest is in helping infrastructure become more efficient, resilient, and sustainable. With 70% of the world’s carbon emissions having some link to the way infrastructure is either planned, designed, built, or operated, digital twins can help with visibility and insights for real-time decisions. Using our earlier example, if a 100,000-square foot building has $200,000 in annual maintenance costs, the digital twin may save 25% from that and add an additional value of $160,000 in terms of environmental, security, and useability benefits like booking of meeting rooms, space utilization analytics, and process visibility.

Another use case relates to worker safety. Bridge inspectors, for instance, often still suspend themselves from ropes, but with drone-based bridge inspections, such as those by Manam that capture photogrammetry used to assemble a 3D digital twin, they can now move much of the inspection process into the office. This saves time and greatly reduces injury risk. With each state in the US often having tens of thousands of bridges to inspect, the ROI for state Departments of Transportation becomes highly significant. Bridge inspectors still need to go out into the field with tools, however, but the 3D model provides an additional technique for rapid visual inspection, detailed analysis, and even AI-detected defects.

And from a security perspective, a digital twin for the Capital One Arena in Washington D.C., for instance, acts as a proving ground for the latest innovations in intelligent building sensor suites to help first responders rapidly prioritize search and rescue areas when emergencies occur.

A Real-Time System of Record

By addressing the full lifecycle from construction to operations and maintenance, infrastructure digital twins provide a system of record and a single source of truth for all parties involved. The former BIM approach was the system of record during the plan, design, and build phases of a project, but it typically stopped once delivery was made to building operators.

As a living system of record, the digital twin merges the visual and geometric representation of the asset, process, or system with the engineering data, IT data, and operational data (such as IoT and SCADA) all in a real-time representation of the physical asset.

Without digital twins, architects often have no visibility into the operational side of their designs, something that could be valuable for feedback and continuous improvement in order to modify and refine designs over time.

For owners and operators, the digital twin provides an up-to-date virtual model they can view anytime from anywhere. They also have visibility into how these assets are performing including past, present, and future indicators.

Visualization & the Metaverse

For complex systems such as buildings, visualization — including renderings, videos, and AR/VR/XR — is an indispensable element to clearly unlock the benefits of digital twins by communicating plans and ideas. AR inspection in particular helps site managers immediately flag mistakes for time and cost savings. They can also scan QR codes onsite to inspect the digital twin data associated with any physical equipment in the facility, such as HVAC systems or mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) equipment. And in VR mode, they can perform remote inspections of all data layers built into the digital twin model via fly throughs.

“We’ve seen an uptake in live digital twins in recent months,” says Martin Rapos, CEO of 3D BIM developer Akular. “In addition to the master integration of building data to break IoT and other building systems silos, there’s increased need for advanced visualization, where the data needs to be geolocated and accurately tagged on 2D or 3D files. The use of VR, MR and mobile devices in working with the digital twin is on the rise as well, allowing builders and asset operators to bring the digital twin from the office to the site, which is what the industry has been trying to achieve for years.”

As also discussed in my previous post, integrating visualization tools and capabilities into digital twin solutions is key to the technology stack and overall ecosystem so customers can better visualize and collaborate around design or operational decisions regarding their physical assets. Compared to other industries, infrastructure has been slow to digitally transform. But over the next two years, the shift to digital twins will likely move to early mainstream and propel the industry forward, so CIOs and executives working in the industry should watch these developments closely and structure their own digital twin strategies for how best to unlock their potential.

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