The digital twin is not a pipedream, but the next frontier of construction management, according to Dr Samad Sepasgozar from UNSW Built Environment.
A digital twin is a digital replica of a physical entity utilising the Internet of Things (IoT) to enable two-way communications between them.
“At the strategic level, the digital twin is a new game-changing approach to construction automation…that will transform the industry quicker than ever before,” Dr Sepasgozar said this week.
“The idea is that for every physical item in the world, there could be a virtual replica with which it connects, housed in the cloud, collecting vital data on the physical item’s performance in real time.
“Industry players might confuse this with Building Information Modelling. But unlike this previous technology, the digital twin also enables users to control equipment,” he said.
“This enables job-site tasks to be performed remotely, which is useful for working through disruptions like COVID-19.”
Dr Sepasgozar is developing a digital twin of an excavator, enabling improved diagnostics and analytics of the digging equipment’s performance.
“The digital twin and the physical excavator can communicate with each other, in real time. All the changes applied to one are applied to the other,” he said.
“For example, you can command the physical equipment and communicate with it [remotely]. On the other hand, the physical object will communicate with you so you can examine its performance, condition and productivity.
“So you can learn through data how to increase the productivity by changing the operation scenarios, like the attachments of the equipment, the distance between [equipment] and the specific floor of the building, you can analyse all [this] in real time.”
One of the major safety challenges for construction management is operating the equipment safely, and controlling its downtime.
From students who have no on-site experience to site managers well into their career, the digital twin can teach them how to evaluate hazards from the safety of afar and may remove the need to be present on-site altogether.
“It’s an online app on smartphones, so it’s much easier to use than you think … in terms of visualisation, in terms of controlling or using it – it is much easier than any previous digital automation technologies,” Sepasgozar said.
A digital twin could also be scalable to an entire construction site and facilitate simulation training exercises virtually to better prepare construction workers for the potentially life-threatening situations they may encounter, he says
“It will cover all kinds of activities within a construction project – all of them, one day, will be connected to digital twins. We already have a lot of different types of sensors, drones, and other tools which will contribute to developing an entire construction digital twin,” he said.
Dr Sepasgozar believes digital twins will also help to make the construction industry more equitable and accessible for smaller players by giving them a platform.
“Most previous technologies, like Building Information Modelling (BIM), is implemented by bigger guys in the industry. But [here] we are talking about smaller stakeholders, people on the ground level, family businesses, the subcontractors such as excavation contractors,” he said.
“Everyone can participate in the data generation, and of course, the sharing platform will be [richer], and that can be more useful to the construction companies and the community as a whole in terms of sharing data.”