Digital Twins in Construction

Improving the integration of digital twins by creating a common data language.

Last updated: 12th October 2021

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Summary

Digital twins use live data to create a virtual model of a building. In complicated projects, they give supply chain confidence that they are all working from the same information, and can help make predictions about how a building will perform in the real world. But digital twins aren't used consistently in construction. Professor Sergio de Cesare at University of Westminster interviewed leading construction firms and SMEs to understand why. One of the barriers he uncovered is that the flow of data is interrupted when it comes from different sources or systems - essentially the data isn't consistent or speaking the same language. His team has developed a methodology that can help organisations apply a common foundations to their data at the very start of a project to improve consistency and make it easier to integrate digital twins. His work is feeding into the data mapping of entire cities through the National Digital Twin programme.

Innovation type: Digital, Process
Organisation type: Construction tier 1 contractors, Innovative SME, Private sector client, Research centre

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Project pioneers

Professor Sergio de Cesare works at the University of Westminster. He uses the study of ontology to understand the relationship between data, and improve the way information is shared and reused between organisations.

The problem

There are ongoing frustrations among industry about the use of digital twins. Users of digital twin software often wrongly assume that the systems are designed so data can be easily merged together. Too often data comes from multiple sources and draws on different information systems. In some cases information is still paper-based. This makes data sharing between partners hard to do. Clients and contractors sometimes only think about data integration when it's needed, which can cause unnecessary delays or time-consuming processes to a project as partners try and stitch data sets together to extract meaningful, real-time insights. These barriers are affecting the adoption of digital twins in the sector.

Vision

Professor de Cesare and his team at University of Westminster have used industry insights around digital twin adoption to put forward a methodology that will enable better data integration. It draws on foundational ontology. This is the principle of creating a common language, or foundation, between information systems so they can more easily merge and talk to each other. It is hoped this approach will lead to consistent and integrated use of digital twins in the sector that can then act as a golden thread of information. Improved use of digital twins will help contractors and suppliers share data better; help designers and engineers understand how a building is being used; and help asset managers understand how services need to integrate with each other. This approach supports the aims of the National Digital Twin programme which is connecting digital twins to map entire cities and infrastructure and make them better places for people and the planet.

Key Insight

Professor de Cesare is completely new to construction. This research project was serendipitous and came about when Construction merged with Digital Business to form the School of Applied Management at the University of Westminster. As new colleagues began talking about the digital transformation in their industries, Professor de Cesare realised he could apply his ontological approach to help the construction sector better understand the barriers and opportunities around the adoption of digital twins.

First step

The Transforming Construction Network+ gave Professor de Cesare support and funding to carry out this initial exploratory research. He started by interviewing 17 industrial stakeholders, large organisations and SMEs. The research team hosted two workshops to initially understand the barriers to data model integration and whether this kind of data integration was feasible in the industry.

Barrier

Integrated digital twin models can help us better visualise our built environment and plan our infrastructure around user needs, construction regulation and requirements, environmental factors and sustainable targets. This will only happen if we can effectively share and integrated data sets and data models. Until then data will remain siloed and fragmented.

Digital Innovation

This feasibility project was highly interdisciplinary. It brought together theory and knowledge from philosophy, computing and construction to explore the barriers and opportunities around the adoption of digital twins 17 stakeholder interviews were conducted with construction firms and they asked a series of questions including: how well the organisations understood digital twins; how they believe it integrated with BIM; if and when they currently use digital twins; how mature or sophisticated their data management currently is; and any data modelling problems or barriers they may have encountered. The stakeholder responses then allowed the research team to put forward a Digital Twins in Construction framework that can begin to connect datasets. The framework proposes a common foundation on which organisations capture data models so the information is consistent and so systems can speak to each other. By creating this common language between existing standards, data models, and systems it can pave the way for more effective use of digital twins and greater connection between them. The University of Westminster team has shared the results of their first exploratory research project and is currently in the process of developing a new proposal to develop this framework into a software tool. It is also in discussion with Matthew West, CTO of the National Digital Twins programme to share the findings that are aligned with the vision of this national project.

Collaborators

The University of Westminster research team partnered with Chris Partridge, Chief Ontologist of BORO Solutions. Chris has become an active member of the research team, contributing to the phases of the project with his expertise in 4D foundational ontology and its applications. He is the lead author of the Top-Level Ontology: Survey Paper which is the starting point for the Foundation Data Model (FDM) that the UK National Digital Twin programme is looking to adopt.

Dr Michael D. Dzandu is a Research Fellow at the University of Westminster. His involvement in the project was in the areas of data and information modelling to support digital twins in construction as well as integration with other Industry 4.0 technologies.

Rob Garvey was instrumental in raising awareness of the Transforming Construction Network plus reearch opportunity and recognising the benefits of the ontological approach to digital twins. Rob works at the University of East London.

Professor Peter Sharratt works at the University of Westminster. He has extensive industrial experience in the management of large-scale digital twin projects.

  • BORO Solutions
  • National Digital Twin Programme
  • University of Westminster

Lead support

The Transforming Construction Network Plus has supported and promoted this research, for example by creating this B1M video.

Long Term Vision

The National Digital Twin programme has a vision to virtually connect our entire national built environment and infrastructure and create better places for people and the environment. This research project is an important step to realising that vision as it has captured valuable insights around barriers to adoption, and is pointing to a framework that can create a common foundation

Human Stories

A better integrated digital twin system will help us help create better places for people and the environment. It will help us understand how people use buildings and infrastructure and will visualise how a built assets could function and exist the real world, rather than simply in design.

Powerful Processes

Following stakeholder interviews with 17 construction firms, the University of Westminster research team put forward a Digital Twins in Construction framework. It proposes a common foundation on which organisations capture data models so the information is consistent and so systems can speak to each other. By creating this common language between existing standards, data models, and systems it can pave the way for more effective use of digital twins and greater connection between them. The findings are now leading to new proposal to develop this framework into a software tool and have been shared with the project leads for the National Digital Twins programme.

Fascinating Facts

17 companies in construction were interviewed to learn more about perceptions of digital twins and potential barriers to adoption.