Can digital buildings cut costs in real buildings?
While many see a golden future for digital twins, their implementation is not without challenges, writes Bahadir Barbarosoglu. What do operators need to know when considering digital twin systems? And how do you assess the potential return on investment?
Digital twins allow users to test real-world scenarios – such as the day-to-day operations of a building – virtually. Providing a ‘single source of truth’ that exceeds the accuracy of BIM, digital twins have a forecast global market value of $152bn by 2030.
How digital twins work
In order to test and monitor a building in the virtual world, a typical digital twin requires five elements:
- The physical asset
- A virtual version of the asset
- A connection between the assets
- Data exchange between the assets
- Appropriate data processing
Unlike a static 3D model, a digital twin is dynamic. Even after the construction is completed, it evolves as the building changes, updating itself as conditions shift.
From an operational perspective, the real-time project data embedded into a digital twin allows for advanced monitoring and control, enabling design-centric smart planning and optimised design. All this drives significant cost and time savings.
Calculating costs and benefits
Despite compelling benefits, upfront investment costs are proving to be a stumbling block for some. It is important, though, to understand costs and benefits in detail and to calculate these in terms of the whole lifecycle of the building.
The cost for project-level digital twin implementation depends on the project type, size and complexity. It can range from about $0.90 per sq ft in distribution centre construction to about $2.70 per sq ft in costliest Grade A commercial office construction, according to research edited by chartered engineer Paul Lengthorn.
Michael Jansen, CEO of Cityzenith suggests that digital twin implementation in infrastructure projects such as Brooklyn Navy Yard can be as low as $0.10 per sq ft, while unlocking roughly $3-5 per sq ft in savings.
Is the industry missing out?
Another factor holding back wider adoption is the attitude of some in the industry towards new working practices. If a contract can be successfully completed using a 2D drawing, which is then stored as a physical document, there is little incentive to develop a more sophisticated system.
However, firms that recognise the potential of going over and above such a static approach will benefit from having a competitive edge and from other opportunities offered by digital twins.
A crucial area where projects will benefit is through savings accrued through improved communications. Digital twins act as a single source of truth that streamline the channels used to communicate changes or decisions around a project.
This removes the danger of misinterpretation or the omission of a vital piece of data altogether, which could delay the project and incur additional costs. Since a digital twin ideally requires an automated two-way communication channel between the physical and virtual assets, any changes to the status of the physical asset will update the virtual asset and vice versa.
Digital twins for sustainability
The technology can also boost sustainability efforts and the operational cost savings that go with them.
Ideal for conducting ‘what if’ scenarios, digital twins can assess the existing or forecast impact of energy-saving features, such as solar panels and ground source heat pumps, on a building and its occupants.
But they can also assess the impact on surrounding neighbourhoods and monitor demand on utilities. This is particularly important for energy-intensive assets such as data centres or healthcare facilities, helping mitigate the potential damage of unforeseen power surges.
Of course, the more widely digital twins are used, the better we’ll become at using them, and the more effective they will be. So how far could their use accelerate?
There are signs that the public sector will lead the way. Singapore has already taken the plunge, developing a city-wide digital twin network. Several urban centres in China have also embraced the technology to develop smart city frameworks.
In addition, Shanghai’s Airport Economic Demonstration Zone uses a digital twin to monitor and predict traffic flow in thousands of accident hotspots and roads subject to flood risk, in order to promote smooth movement throughout the zone.
Globally, digital twins have the potential to save cities $280bn according to ABI Research. Once cities see the feasibility of the technology and validate their goals against what a digital twin network can achieve, they could require every new development to provide some form of digital twin.
After all, digital twins successfully implemented can lower the lifecycle cost of physical assets. But the value needs to be assessed holistically: from the opportunity cost of not using the approach in the first place through to the sustainability benefits accrued while the asset is in use.
Wider adoption is likely as the full range of benefits becomes better understood, but it will be boosted strongly if the public sector begins to lead.
Bahadir Barbarosoglu is programme manager at Linesight