California contractor shows what digital twins can realistically do for construction

By Lucy Barnard and Jenny LescohierOctober 18, 2021

Bentley Systems Design Integration Simulations

What exactly is a digital twin and how can it help your construction business?

These are valid questions today as the construction industry takes leaps and bounds into the future of high technology.

To begin with, a digital twin is simply a virtual model designed to accurately reflect a physical object. In the context of construction, the twin is a digital representation of a job site and it can enable project stakeholders to work remotely, saving time and money.

Are digital twins ‘for real’ in construction?

A survey by market research company Markets and Markets predicted the global digital twin market is set to increase to $48.2 billion by 2026 – more than 15 times its size in 2020. Construction companies are expected to be among the biggest drivers.

“Digital twin technology is one of the fastest growing concepts in the construction industry,” says Frank Weiss, senior director for new products at Oracle Construction and Engineering, an arm of computer giant Oracle which specializes in developing software solutions for construction firms. “Digital twins can play a profound role in how owners manage built assets, and how consumers interact with these structures.”

Weiss says digital twins can make the construction process quicker and faster and help teams work together better using more up-to-date information, especially if teams are working on a project from different physical locations.

“Today’s organizations want to consolidate as much as possible into a single, cloud-based platform, and eliminate on-premise silos of duplicate information,” Weiss says. “A digital twin helps ensure that team members will be working off the latest data analytics for a project, including those for repeatable processes that are being built offsite. It can help act as the cornerstone for prefabrication and can play a prominent role in achieving efficient communication and construction business processes.”

And, he says, the information from the digital twin can then be used in computer simulations to predict how a project will perform over time - providing information which can then be used by the designers and engineers to optimize their designs before work has even started.

“A 4D simulation [over time] provides the context and chronology to create simulation scenarios in the digital twin,” he says. “It helps the design and engineering phase of a construction project by expediting and automating traditional design, production, and operational processes. It will identify opportunities to improve the construction of an asset as the project is evolving.”

Rich Humphrey, vice president of construction product management at another software firm, Bentley Systems, agrees. He points out that unlike Building Information Modeling (BIM) software which has been used to varying degrees in construction for the past 20 years, digital twins provide real-time information about projects, making them invaluable on construction sites where designs can be altered based on the conditions in the field.

“A digital twin is a realistic digital and dynamic representation of a physical asset, process, or system in its built environment,” he says. “The keyword is dynamic and that is what distinguishes a digital twin from any other static model. It’s living. It’s changing along with the physical asset.”

California contractor cuts costs

Swinerton, a San Francisco-based commercial construction firm, is using digital twin technology to reduce costs associated with project delays and travel to sites by staff, stakeholders and clients. By capturing digital twins of projects throughout the construction process, Swinerton can visually document site conditions in a photorealistic and dimensionally accurate way. This enables teams to remotely oversee construction progress, and precisely measure spaces without the need to be there in person.

To achieve this, Swinerton is using spatial data company Matterport Inc. to reduce the need for architects, mechanics, electricians and plumbers to travel by up to 50%. This also reduces the number of people on a job site, thereby increasing on-site efficiency and decreasing risks as defined by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

By integrating digital twins into their workflow, Swinerton has almost eliminated travel time and associated costs for clients, saving them thousands of dollars. In addition, regular visual updates and digital walk-throughs provide clients a sense of ownership and peace of mind throughout the project timeline.

“Two-dimensional blueprints and plans don’t give a sense of how a space will come together the way digital twins do,” says Rachel Kurth, assistant project manager for special projects at Swinerton. “We guide clients through digital twins of spaces so that they don’t have to travel to the site, resolving issues by the next day. We shaved four weeks off a recent project using this approach. It’s been a game-changer for our company and our industry.”

The digital platform also allows Swinerton team members to communicate more efficiently with each other and stakeholders as soon as new site conditions arise. Thanks to its integration with Autodesk BIM Collaborate Pro, they can remotely resolve issues and Requests For Information (RFIs) flagged within digital twins with Notes or ‘Mattertags.’

Swinerton can log those issues or RFIs and track them until they’re resolved, expediting overall project timelines, which translates to cost savings and faster payment.

Because job sites are captured in such a precise way, Swinerton teams can digitally measure spaces just as accurately and much more quickly with the Measurement Mode tool than traditional hand-measurement methods. Plus, the digital twin is accessible by the entire project team anytime, anywhere, eliminating the time and cost associated with in-person visits. They can also quickly calculate procurement quantities and cost projections with the same tool.

“Everything we would ever need a conventional site visit to accomplish, such as taking measurements or making calculations, we can accomplish virtually,” says Spencer Jarrett, project engineer at Swinerton. “Sharing data with our client gave them confidence that we were on track. The ability to exchange ideas so quickly enabled us to complete this construction project in six months instead of a year.”

Digital twins also help Swinerton plan ahead and reduce mistakes, saving time and money. By scanning a site in stages as it’s constructed, the company avoids potential costly issues that might arise later, such as accidentally puncturing electrical and plumbing lines, should they ever need to cut into finished walls to address changing project conditions.

Swinerton also uses Matterport for more frequent, efficient client collaboration, replacing activities such as bimonthly onsite walk-throughs with detailed, weekly updates featuring digital twins.

“It redefines efficiency and productivity for AEC. Through the power of our photorealistic, dimensionally accurate digital twins, users can organize, analyze, and store critical information regarding a building site throughout the entirety of its life cycle at the touch of a button,” said Stephanie Lin, senior director of business strategy at Matterport. “This allows expert practitioners like Swinerton to streamline more repetitive tasks such as return site visits and reallocate hours previously spent on site documentation and coordination to higher ROI activities such as accelerating construction schedules.”

Streamlining construction projects from start to finish

Humphrey at Bentley says his teams start work on digital twins before construction has even started, capturing existing conditions on site such as survey results and encapsulating design models and engineering data from the design phase. Then, on-site sensors can monitor construction conditions in real time.

“Digital twins can significantly benefit the construction industry, helping users make data-driven decisions and achieve more predictable outcomes,” he says. “They quickly allow users to perform construction sequences and simulations, so that they can detect and resolve errors before construction begins which reduces time for project teams and, therefore, costs for the owner.”

By buying materials early and plugging the data from it into a digital twin, software firms say contractors can start engineering components such as piping three to four months earlier than would otherwise be possible, reducing overruns and bringing construction projects closer to budget.

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