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Digital Twin Technology and Advanced BIM

By Pamela O’Reilly, Procon Consulting

Over the last five years technology has grown at a rapid pace and nowhere is that more evident than at the building management level. Although the term “intelligent building” was first coined as early as 1981, it has become more widely used in the last 10 years as technologies like Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Computerized Maintenance Systems (CMMS) take root. One facet of the smart building that is not so widely known is the Digital Twin technology. Very simply, a Digital Twin is a virtual representation or replica of an actual physical object. The technology as it’s being used is somewhat more complex.

Igor Starkov, Founder and CEO of EcoDomus, sees the future of BIM and Digital Twin applications as the combination of multiple technologies, all of which are trying to provide a full picture of how a building operates—what is happening now, the history of the building, and what will happen in the future. BIM gives us what is happening now—information about static objects. Sensors and things like past work orders provide you with historical information on how the building operates and how its occupants behave. The future deals with scenarios and simulations. What happens if I make changes to this damper? How will that impact the temperature of the building? Digital Twin and its accompanying applications have the ability to integrate BIM, CMMS, and Energy Simulation tools, while utilizing IoT to create a complete view of the building, past, present, and future.

An example of Industrial Sensors captured in a Digital Twin model provided by EcoDomus

There are challenges to implementing this technology. The sensors in a building provide one avenue through which data is collected. Most buildings in the last 50 years have been equipped with some sort of sensors, but they may not be in use. The Federal Government, however, manages a large number of historic buildings that are not equipped with sensors or more modern technologies. The General Services Administration (GSA) preserves and oversees approximately 350 buildings that were constructed before 1970. The challenge is with collecting that data, as even the most meticulous of building managers miss equipment or are not aware of what is installed in their facility. The first step towards effective Digital Twin integration is having reliable data, and understanding that data—How does this valve work? What is this pipe for? What are the electrical systems and how do they work? All of this data provides a digital snapshot of the building.

According to Starkov, another challenge lies with the FM workforce. Many facilities managers who have been in the industry for 30 years or more have seen huge changes in the way buildings are constructed and managed. Thirty years ago, buildings were simpler to maintain, but have become much more complex with increased automation. More seasoned building managers maintain much of the historical knowledge of their facilities in their heads, not relying as much on technology as those just entering the FM workforce. It is crucial that their institutional knowledge transfers from the older generation to the younger, and technology can facilitate that transfer if used to its full capacity.

An example of a Digital Twin model of an Airport provided by EcoDomus

Right now, Digital Twin and advanced BIM technologies are only being implemented by advanced users. The reliance on this skill set is in its infancy, but in the next five years, Starkov predicts that more and more people will be educated about it and budgeting for it. Implementing new technologies relies on updated procedures and training the workforce, and for many who have been working a specific way for many years, it means a complete culture change.

In the next 10 years, Starkov foresees a trend in web services and the ability for different systems to talk to each other, especially in open protocols. He sees the growth of automation and IoT continuing as we usher in a world of 5G, faster networks, faster hardware, and less expensive sensors. Virtual and augmented reality will become more popular—at the moment, equipment for those technologies is bulky and heavy. In the future, AR headsets will be incorporated into tools such as glasses and will be more affordable and widely accessible.

Starkov’s recommendation to organizations is not to wait to implement Digital Twin and BIM technologies. He says to “start with baby steps” slowly and consistently. Instead of starting on a large-scale project, use it for multiple, smaller projects in a consistent way. He says to remember that BIM and Digital Twin don’t have to be 100% complete with all building elements at the beginning. Having just the core and shell of the building is helpful, even if all the smaller elements are incomplete. Every day you’re not collecting data, you’re losing data points.

Author note: Interview with Igor Starkov, CEO and Founder of EcoDomus

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