Digital twins: their potential and the position of Australian FMs

by Ben Ice
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Digital twins boast the capacity to minimise risk and streamline efficiencies and decisions. Are Australian facility managers putting them to work?

Digital twinning was named in Gartner’s top 10 strategic technology trends for three years running, starting 2017. Its use, as beacon and IoT (Internet of Things) technologies become more accessible to a growing number of practitioners and businesses, is becoming more widespread and it’s being applied in creative ways to revolutionise systems, maintenance and even cities. FM takes a look at the technology and scope of this exciting work.

A definition

A digital twin is a digital replication of a physical asset, service or system. The concept originated in 2002, when Dr Michael Grieves and John Vickers of the University of Michigan presented the idea of a ‘Product Lifecycle Management’ centre, in which real data was applied in a virtual space to generate information and processes for the real space, to industry. Developments in data capture, management and visualisation, as well as the burgeoning IoT in the 18 years since, have turned the concept into a reality – a tool for asset managers, manufacturers, city planners and more to optimise workflows and mitigate risk.

GE uses digital twinning to manage its wind farms, BP has modelled representations of its oil fields and a research centre in Glasgow tested ways to save materials and time in whisky production. Famously, experts in the city of Singapore work with an exact digital copy of the metropolis to observe and simulate situations to improve city life. A similar project by the New South Wales Government for Western Sydney went live this February. Working with CSIRO’s digital arm ‘Data61’, the NSW Department of Customer Service’s Spatial Services has developed the New South Wales Spatial Digital Twin. The four-dimensional (3D plus time) model is based on three-dimensional aerial imagery and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) integrated with the state’s location and land records.

NSW Spatial Digital Twin and Testimonials from Spatial Services on Vimeo.

Transport, utilities, planning, natural resource management, environmental management and emergency management data is being progressively added and the platform also integrates digital engineering assets, building information models and live API (application programming interface) feeds for public transport, air quality and energy production. What’s more, the New South Wales Spatial Digital Twin has been made available to government, industry, academia and the community via a digital workbench.

Construction giant Lendlease partnered with the project to share data on cities and buildings. “The really powerful benefit to industry is going to come when we start to use digital twins to project future outcomes,” says Daryl Patterson, chief product officer at Lendlease Digital Delivery. “I think what’s happening in New South Wales with regards to digital twins is some of the most advanced work. We’ve seen smaller places like Singapore putting a lot of data together and doing some very sophisticated things with that data, but no one’s yet tackling things on the scale of what’s happening in New South Wales. It’s the kind of use of technology that we think will transform the industry.”

As population growth and the need for smart, real-time solutions and planning processes intensifies, it’s easy to see why digital twinning’s use is on the increase.

For FM

It’s also easy to imagine the practical potential of applying this technology to facilities and microenvironments smaller than bustling cities. The traffic, water and power consumption, schedule, atmosphere, connectivity, wear and tear and maintenance of a building all provide a rich, deep and constantly updated pool of data that can bear, if data tools and proficiency allow, a living digital twin. From here, facility managers can track, test and optimise operations without risking the real thing or generating expensive prototypes over and over again.

Sensors installed throughout a facility should track information on all systems and the cloud-based twin allows quick analysis and organised records of the kind one could only dream of in the days of paper records. It can create a working replica of spaces, assets and equipment, allow remote operation and troubleshooting, improve efficiency, reduce waste, improve productivity and comfort for occupants, enable testing on various scenarios and causes of previous issues, and provide the opportunity to predict future performance.

It’s an invaluable tool and no doubt most FMs are sold on its value and potential. The large barriers to entry, as with all emerging technologies, are cost and complexity. The NSW Government identifies this as a key challenge. “Involving high levels of complexity, digital twins can be expensive to design and build,” says its digital twinning Emerging Technologies Guide.

Sci-fi or reality?

Worldwide, digital twin use is gaining traction. In a Gartner IoT implementation survey last year, which heard from organisations implementing IoT projects from China, Germany, India, Japan, the US and the UK, 13 percent were already using digital twins. Sixty-two percent were in the process of establishing digital twin use or planning to do so by the end of 2019.

“We see digital twin adoption in all kinds of organisations,” said Benoit Lheureux, research VP at Gartner.

Reading up on the topic there’s plenty of futuristic optimism, but how many Australian FMs out there are actually using the technology, or is it still a few years away from ubiquitous use on our shores?

“The race is on, in my view,” says long-time FM expert Graham Constable, “to be the FM company that does it first.” Constable is currently working on developing the capability and believes it’s worthwhile.

“You can think of all the spin-offs from having that data: being able to determine how you can make your client’s business more competitive, because they’re attracting and retaining the best talent, their buildings are costing them less than their competitors are [spending on theirs] – so they don’t have those overheads. They can then reinvest their money into research within and make their products better. It’s all knock-on benefits after all; that’s all FM is.”

But whether or not we’re there yet is up for debate. “These days, you know, you can have a list as long as your arm in terms of the benefits to the client, but at the moment [Australian FMs are] not really, through data, enabling clients, I don’t think,” Constable says.

Right for me?

There are downsides and potential pitfalls to digital twinning as with everything. The NSW Government outlines five potential risks and challenges. They are:

  • Accuracy: the accuracy of the twin compared to its physical counterpart could be limited depending on data available and its quality.
  • Interoperability: challenges in ensuring the digital twin works with existing assets, systems and products.
  • Unreadable data: data formats have short life cycles and, as digital management solutions are updated regularly, legacy data from long-term facilities like buildings can become difficult to integrate with the new.
  • Data ownership: the data required for and retained in the twin will be valuable. Ownership arrangements should be agreed upon and clearly understood from the outset.
  • Affordability: as emerging tech with high levels of complexity, digital twinning is still a costly endeavour.

A quote from Gartner’s survey results announcement sums up the complexity nicely. “Fifty-four percent of respondents reported that while most of their digital twins serve only one constituency, sometimes their digital twins served multiple constituencies. Nearly a third stated that either most or all of their digital twins [did this]. For example, the constituencies of a connected car digital twin can include the manufacturer, a customer service provider and the insurance company – each with a need for different IoT data. When asked for examples of digital twin constituencies, replies varied widely, ranging from internal IoT data consumers, such as employees or security, over commercial partners to technology providers.”

Lheureux says, “These findings show that digital twins serve a wide range of business objectives. Designers of digital twins should keep in mind that they will probably need to accommodate multiple data consumers and provide appropriate data access points.”

The possibilities for streamlining workflows and testing and learning do appear endless. But digital twins won’t be right for every application. “There are inherent risks,” warns Sony Shetty in a separate Gartner blog post. “[Digital twins] could be technology overkill for a particular business problem. There are also concerns about cost, security, privacy and integration.”

To enable better disruptive IoT solutions, Gartner recommends:

  • Focus on objectives: understand your key objectives for digital twins before investing to build them.
  • Assess adoption readiness: a parallel element to this is understanding the readiness of the enterprise of the enterprise to adopt IoT initiatives that will leverage digital twins.
  • Seek simplicity: avoid building a digital twin if business objectives can be met with basic indicators from sensors on critical performance issues.
  • Include checks and balances: develop leading indicators with metrics that can be used to measure the progress of digital twin initiatives.

The future: triplets? Quadruplets?

Certain organisations that have multiple twins deployed are starting to integrate them. A power plant with IoT connected industrial valves, pumps and generators, for example, has a role for digital twins for each piece of equipment as well as a composite digital twin, which aggregates IoT data across the equipment to analyse overall operations.

In Gartner’s 2019 survey report, 61 percent of companies with already implemented digital twins had integrated at least one pair in these complex set-ups. Seventy-four percent of organisations that have not yet integrated digital twins will do so in the next five years. “True integration is still relatively complicated and requires high-order integration and information management skills,” says Lheureux. “The ability to integrate digital twins with each other will be a differentiating factor in the future as physical assets and equipment evolve.”

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