When NASA’s Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970 was aborted after launch, the ground crew’s objective was to bring the crew back alive. But with the lunar module 330,000 km above Earth, how could they figure out what to do next?
NASA had a model of the spacecraft on Earth, and engineers were able to use that to test and plan the rescue mission. The modern day version of these systems are called digital twins, where engineers can test different scenarios in a virtual environment, before, during and after they build any physical parts.
“The ultimate vision for the digital twin is to create, test and build our equipment in a virtual environment,” according to John Vickers, a founder of the concept and leading manufacturing expert at NASA. The agency turned to these because it’s much cheaper than the cost of failed missions.
We take a look at how digital twins are now being used to design, build and operate everything from cars to cities.
The emerging autonomous and electric vehicles industries are examples of how digital twins are being used. Tesla has a digital twin of every car it builds, with data constantly exchanged between the car and factory. It uses these to constantly tweak and test performance, and push out new software to the cars.
DXC’s Robotic Drive platform offers R&D teams digital twins of future autonomous vehicles. This allows them to run advanced analytics on exabytes of global sensor data, cut research cycles and reduce the time and cost to market in the race to develop fully autonomous cars.
“We can create digital twins of the driver and his/her actions, the car and how it behaves, other cars on the road and the road itself. The digital twin captures a remarkable amount of data which DXC is working to make sense of through deep analysis to understand complex behaviours,” said Dan Hushon, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at DXC Technology.
Cities are also applying similar technologies to enhance planning, design and sustainability.
A cornerstone of digital twins for cities is building information modelling (BIM). This discipline has been applied by architects and developers for decades to plan and design buildings, bridges and other public infrastructure. BIM is now an internationally recognised standard used by governments, planners, regulators and builders across the world.
Technology is critical to the successful adoption of BIM standards, disciplines and processes. Digital twins take models of buildings and combine them with deep analytics tools and emerging engineering technologies to create dynamic replicas. They simulate the entire life of a physical structure – ranging in scale from individual buildings to entire cities – across design, construction, operation and maintenance.
“Digital Twins for smart cities are based on delivering three core capabiltiries: a federated environment, an accurate digital representation and rich insights,” says Rob Gordon, Vice President of Global Business Enablement for Travel, Transport & Hospitality at DXC Technology.
Let’s look at these three in turn. Collaboration is essential as designing, building and maintaining key city infrastructure involve many stakeholders. “The digital twin must be accessible to all stakeholders engaged in the lifecycle of the asset,” says Gordon. A single source of truth with the right security, naming conventions, data standards and access permissions are critical to the integrity of the twin.
Second, like in any digital system, maintaining data accuracy is crucial. As assets are built, maintained or replaced, every detail must be updated or the digital twin fails to accurately represent reality. With sensors embedded in infrastructure, it’s possible for the twin to always stay updated.
Finally, accurate digital twins allow users to simulate scenarios that the physical asset is exposed to, including economic, efficiency and environmental impacts. Immersive experiences like augmented reality, 3D visualisation and reality modelling provide users with operational insights.
What does it look like?
Countries around the world are building models of public infrastructure and, indeed, entire cities as Singapore has done, noted Gordon Heap, General Manager of Public Sector, Singapore at DXC Technology.
Singapore has built a S$73 million live, digital replica of the entire city for civil servants to run virtual experiments and test scenarios before policies are actually implemented. While this was created as a central platform for civil servants, the city’s Building and Construction Authority has developed an Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD) plan to boost the construction and engineering sector’s use of tech.
IDD builds on BIM and Virtual Design and Construction technologies, BCA has said. “With IDD, project stakeholders can collaborate better to achieve a higher level of integration than ever before through the use of ICT and data,” the agency’s CEO Hugh Lim said.
This approach was announced as part of the national strategy to transform the construction industry with tech, and is backed by funding and schemes to train government agencies and the construction sector on how to use the tech. BCA also issued a S$4 million joint call with the Infocomm Media Development Authority to develop digital platforms for the sector.
Singapore’s vision is for digital tech to be used across all stages of construction. In the design stage, digital twins can help coordinate with clients and meet regulatory requirements. “Architects consider these elements during design, but have been constrained by siloed models and A0 blueprints, whereas the digital twin allows dynamic recalibration when interdependent elements of the design are modified,” Heap said.
The design specifications can then be digitally sent to the fabrication centre, ensuring they get the most accurate details and their timeline for delivery is tracked. Any new elements added to the structure can be verified against a 3D model. “With mixed reality, construction site managers can visualise both the work-in-progress physical asset and the virtual design. This helps avoid or resolve disputes and keeps the project on schedule,” Heap explained.
At the construction site, managers and workers will be able to see the exact location where parts should be hoisted and how they should be assembled. And finally, the eventual operation and maintenance of the infrastructure can be recorded in the digital twin. “Preventative actions can be predicted; the maintenance, report and overhaul process augmented; and actions recorded for long-term sustainability,” Heap said.
Who else has done it?
A number of governments around the world are taking national strategic views on digital twins, and it’s clear that underlying disciplines such as BIM are an important piece. Dubai has mandated the use of BIM for large-scale projects. The UK has been an international leader on BIM, and is looking to build on that with a proposed national digital twin for public infrastructure. EU’s Horizon 2020 programme has provided €20 million to fund digital twins over the next three years.
In Singapore, the government selected 12 construction projects to serve as pilot sites for digital tech. Among them is a logistics hub, where digital simulation and modelling has allowed it to detect defects early, track safety in real-time, and ensure greater precision during construction. It has applied BIM and digital tools as “an enabler to forge partnerships to bring automation, robotics and sustainable technologies to the building life cycle”, developer JTC’s Assistant CEO of Engineering and Operations, Heah Soon Poh said.
We anticipate that more cities will adopt digital twin technology based on BIM standards and processes to drive livability and sustainability.