Digital twin technology: the opportunities and risks of digital twins in construction and real estate

This article was co-authored by Tegan Johnson, Solicitor Apprentice, Sheffield.

What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is, simply put, a digital copy of a physical asset.

The virtual model can be made of almost any physical asset – a building, a bridge, a manufactured component – and is as near to identical as possible. It means that anyone viewing the digital copy can understand the state of the actual asset.

The copy can benefit a user in decision making, monitoring and generally for informational purposes. Sometimes the copy and the asset influence each other – the asset may automatically change the copy, or the copy may autonomously influence and make changes to the asset.

As an example, think of a thermostat. Changes in the monitored asset change the copy, and the copy influences the asset by reacting to those and feeding back to the heating system.

The asset and the copy are coupled together: updating the physical asset requires updating the copy, either automatically or manually. An outdated or incorrect copy is not beneficial to the user.

A building can be a physical asset for use in a digital twin and can also be copied into a digital form, either right at the start of or after construction. This can be used to assist anyone working on the project – from anywhere.

A good digital twin

For a digital twin to be useful, it has to be accurate and secure.

All potentially sensitive data contained in the digital copy must be as safe as any other sensitive data held online. This includes both the copy itself and its storage. The transmission between the copy and the asset must also be protected (on a secure network, encrypted, etc.). A weakness in either of these can leave the twin open to interference – or cybercrime.

It also needs to be accurate: an inaccurate copy of an asset can be more of a hindrance than a help. Mistakes in a copy could lead to all sorts of issues (and decisions made on the wrong information can be seriously damaging). If the intention is to use the copy either for a team to make decisions with, or to automate decisions itself, inaccuracies can lead to potentially costly mistakes.

Accuracy however doesn’t only mean data input - the age of the data is important. Good digital twins use live data with minimal ‘capture latency’ – the period between data being produced, and captured and processed into the digital copy. A shorter period (less latency) reduces the scope for errors based on old and outdated information.

The appropriate interval for updates to a digital copy can differ – for high speed manufacturing, this might be as small as thousandths of a second, whereas days, months or even years might be more appropriate for monitoring geological changes. It is key to understand what the optimal capture interval should be, balancing the need for up to date information with the practicalities of compiling the data.

Digital twin and construction

The construction industry is already familiar with BIM (Building Information Modelling), a copy of a planned physical asset. Digital twin take this one step further; with the copy in a twin being useful beyond construction into the operation and maintenance stages.

Twins have the potential to change how we work with buildings and construction, requiring greater collaboration and synchronicity, but allowing and facilitating easier and more effective use throughout the lifecycle of the build.

That said, there are still questions to be ironed out. Ownership of the digital copy and the information in it, liabilities and requirements of the contractor and consultant team to feed into the process, and accuracy of it will all need to be considered. Gaps in the digital twin or inaccuracies have the potential to lead to big claims, as may ownership and copyright questions.

Digital twin and real estate

In real estate, digital twins could ensure buildings are operating at its maximum efficiency by identifying energy saving methods, for example. If an increasing number of buildings use digital twins, there could be a compounding effect whereby buildings could use each other as benchmarks to compare energy efficiency and other metrics.

With the twins’ diagnostics and predictive maintenance features, landlords could quickly identify and resolve problems and save costs. While these features appear to benefit landlords, some of the cost savings may ultimately be passed down to tenants.

When drafting leases or sale contracts where twins are involved, there will need to be considerations regarding who is responsible for the costs of updating the twin and the frequency and accuracies of such updates. If used during the due diligence process, an updates cut-off could be agreed to avoid delays and prolonged negotiations due to evolving data and metrics from the twin.

Comment

Digital twin technology is a real opportunity for the industry to grapple with sustainability, reuse and efficiency through the life cycle of a building, as well as to improve the construction process. As with any opportunity, there are unknowns, so careful contracts will be key until industry standards and case law are developed in time.