Digital Twin Technology: Transforming the Asset Lifecycle For Construction

digital twins construction
Illustration: © IoT For All

There is a desperate need for Infrastructure repair in America, highlighted by our score of a C- on the American Society of Civil Engineer’s report card. The recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) aims to repair the nation’s roads, bridges, pipelines, waterways, and grid with an incredible $1.2 trillion that will jumpstart construction projects across the country. However, this funding can only be so successful in industries plagued by systemic delays, frequent rework, and ballooning budgets. To successfully transform U.S. infrastructure, teams need to address a persistent challenge: data. With this in mind, digital twin technology will prove central to bringing U.S. infrastructure into the 21st century, improving communication, productivity, and data integrity in construction.

The benefits of Building Information Modeling are augmented with digital twins. Digital twins are like a living model. A digital twin built to bridge the field and office can transform the entire asset lifecycle from construction site to ongoing O&M. For the nation’s highways and electrical grid to last, the hand-off between owners, engineers, and general contractors can’t be neglected. From the very beginning, stakeholders along the value chain need to collaborate on a digital twin platform and align on designing, building, and maintaining infrastructure that will endure for future generations.

What Is Digital Twin Technology?

Greg Bentley, Bentley Systems CEO, highlights a key feature of digital twins in explaining his company’s objective with the technology, “Our endeavors till now have made software to produce useful deliverables, but therefore a static and dated purpose. Our objective in Digital Twins is to make the value of those deliverables endure over the longevity of the asset and have evergreen visibility into what has been ‘dark engineering’ data to synchronize its changes over time and to open up this dark data for immersive visualization. But even more importantly, the visibility of analytics, including analytics over time for Digital Twin is that fourth dimension, 4D.”

In other words, a digital twin provides unparalleled visibility from design to construction and enduring O&M. This makes it so that there is nothing lost between hand-offs but and data is actually able to inform decision-making.

Too often, we see paper, poorly integrated apps, siloed legacy systems, or spreadsheets preventing stakeholders throughout the value chain from accessing actionable data or creating a rich system of record.

Let’s take construction as an example.

It may be old news that construction’s reliance on analog technologies has contributed to its productivity crisis. However, it’s key to understand that construction’s delays and high costs have ripple effects, all of which ultimately impact the health and longevity of an asset. Digital twin technology promises to not only overcome many of the data and communication challenges within construction but transform the entire asset lifecycle.

3 Factors Contributing to Construction’s Productivity Crisis

Construction’s not set to slow down any time soon. Any minor inefficiency is critical, and construction’s significant challenges with data and communication cost billions of dollars every year.

Big Data & High Costs

For some of the most significant infrastructure projects, teams produce an average of 130 million emails, 55 million documents, and 12 million workflows. Yet, construction is one of the least digitized sectors globally, hampered by analog processes in the field and legacy systems in the office.

Among the findings of a 2018 industry report by FMI and PlanGrid:

  • Construction workers waste two working days every week searching for project data (revised drawings, material cut sheets, etc.) and resolving avoidable issues (e.g., conflict resolution, rework, etc.).
  • These non-optimal tasks will cost a mid-sized construction company over $2 billion every year, totaling $177.5 billion across the sector.
  • Poor communication and project information cause nearly half of all rework – a $31.3 billion price tag every year.

Consistent Rework

A 2021 survey by FMI and Autodesk indicates construction’s issues with data quantity and quality remain significant:

  • Available project data has doubled over just three years.
  • But 25 percent of respondents’ project data is unusable.
  • one third of all poor decisions are due to bad data.
  • Bad data may have cost $1.84 trillion in 2020 because of this poor decision making.
  • $88.7 billion in rework could be traced to bad data.

In short, as construction projects grow larger and more complex within a rapidly growing sector, good data and communication are more important than ever.

Opportunities with Declining Productivity

Construction’s decline in productivity and challenges with data aren’t new. A World Economic Forum report observed in 2016 that while other U.S. industries were seeing a 153 percent growth in labor productivity over the last 50 years, construction fell by 19 percent.

The WEF argued digitalization is central to construction’s transformation and would produce global savings of $0.7-1.2 trillion in Engineering and Construction and $0.3-0.5 trillion in Operations. In other words, the benefits of digitalization extend along the entire value chain.

Building a Competitive Construction Company

McKinsey highlighted five areas where construction companies can innovate and gain a competitive advantage:

  • Higher-definition surveying and geolocation
  • Next-generation 5-D building information modeling
  • Digital collaboration and mobility
  • The Internet of Things and advanced analytics
  • Future-proof design and construction

Of the five, four directly concern collecting, visualizing, and processing information. Information’s central role here may come as no surprise considering the stats we have explored. To be effective, construction companies need a rich, accurate, real-time system of record.

This is where digital twins will transform construction.

Bridging the Gap Between Office & Field with Digital Twins

Too often, field crews document work on paper, save data to spreadsheets and thumb drives, then waste time getting updated info back to the office. This is slow, error-prone, costly, and difficult for third parties to work with. As a result, a digital twin’s instant access to data on every physical asset hinges on innovation in the field. 

Construction companies need to exchange manual processes and analog technologies for field solutions that are mobile, cloud-based, and data agnostic. These are key requirements for an accurate digital twin. There’s been progress in construction’s adoption of mobile technology, but significant issues remain: manual data collection and transfer, poor adoption of field apps, and a lack of integrations.

3 Issues Associated with Mobile Tech Adoption

Manual Data Collection Persists

A 2018 survey by TrackViareported 47 percent of construction managers use manual methods when capturing key project information. Notably, the majority of managers agree manual systems lead to incomplete information on work quality.

In another study also from 2018, nearly 50 percent of construction companies reported mobile tech increases the volume of quality data they can collect, and the vast majority agreed on improvements in data access and field-to-office communication.

Neglecting Field Software

Simply equipping field workers with mobile technology won’t solve construction’s data challenges. For instance, PlanGrid and FMI observe that while 75 percent of those surveyed provide mobile devices to project managers and field supervisors, less than 50 percent use apps. Instead, information is decentralized across email, text, and phone calls.

Lack of Integraitons

Still, even for those with field apps, a lack of integrations prevent teams from leveraging mobile software to its fullest potential. In fact, over 50 percent of those surveyed in JB Knowledge’s 2021 study are manually transferring data for apps because of missing integrations. Despite field software adoption, construction companies are falling back on manual transfer, spreadsheet imports, email, or other time consuming, error-prone processes.

Digital Twins & Cloud Based Data: The Benefits

To bridge the gap between office and field, managers should equip crews with integrated mobile software that enables easy data capture, error-free data sharing, and centralized collaboration.

Companies that offer data agnostic SaaS solutions are uniquely prepared to address this need by streamlining workflows and ensuring digital twins are rooted in the truth on the ground. For instance, if general contractors are going to benefit from real-time data access and create accurate as-builts, they need dynamic, quality data from the field.

Ultimately, digitization is only valuable as long as it’s paired with integration and clean collaboration between boots on the ground, back-office systems, and stakeholders along the value chain. Let’s look at two other benefits of digital twins field adoption.

Transforming Project Hand-Off

Though integrated mobile software is a key step forward in construction, siloed applications aren’t simply an issue in the field. The same goes for legacy back-office systems (EAM, GIS, etc.) and even digital twins, when stakeholders aren’t aligned on digital twin technology from project inception.

Considering these siloes, it’s not surprising 95 percent of total data collected in construction and engineering goes unused and 30 percent of this data is actually lost by project hand-off.

In contrast, a digital twin born at the beginning of a project can provide comprehensive, real-time visibility for everyone involved. For example, this collaboration between an asset owner and general contractor ensures a clean project hand-off and makes it easy for a general contractor to create high-quality deliverables.

High-quality, Real-time As-Builts

When a general contractor partners with an asset owner on digital twin technology, they can dynamically compile documentation and map changes as construction progresses, which guarantees visibility throughout a project and accurate information at hand-off. This lies in stark contrast to cobbling together as-built drawings at the end of a project or struggling to transfer data between siloed digital twins.

While avoiding rework and disputes are immediate benefits of digital twin technology in construction, an accurate as-built is critical to the entire lifecycle of an asset and leads to significant savings in the long term for an asset owner.

With digital twin technology, an as-built is more comprehensive because data doesn’t get lost amid legacy systems or analog technologies: models, timelines, drawings, forms, maps, photos, video, and more provide a rich context. Plus, if a digital twin is cloud-based and mobile-friendly, this thorough record can be accessed anywhere, any time, by O&M crews. This saves hours that might be spent traveling to an office and sorting through files.

When a general contractor seamlessly turns over a thorough record, they not only improve their own reputation by documenting clear and effective work but ensure the asset will continue to perform well into the future.

Conclusion: Field Adoption is Key to Digital Twins Technology

The endless potential of digital twins may be somewhat intimidating, especially considering the impact can extend across the entire value chain.

It’s simple: for digital twins to effectively transform critical infrastructure, they need to make a field worker’s life easier. They need to be intuitive, mobile-friendly, integrated, and cloud-based, so that information can be captured quickly and communicated with ease, wherever they are.

Trusted by top utilities, contractors, and the federal government, Unearth equips those who build and maintain infrastructure with intuitive data capture, spatial intelligence, and collaboration. In other words, easy-to-use Mobile GIS.
Trusted by top utilities, contractors, and the federal government, Unearth equips those who build and maintain infrastructure with intuitive data capture, spatial intelligence, and collaboration. In other words, easy-to-use Mobile GIS.