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Moving towards the infrastructure digital twin

Author: Kevin Reeves , Group head internet of things and data services

Today of course the potential for a digital twin is far greater thanks to cloud technologies, internet of things (IoT) connectivity and advanced analytics. It seems that once again, the digital twin has the spotlight.

At Costain we deliver complex infrastructure projects across the UK and a commonly asked question to address first is: 'Does building information modelling (BIM) create a digital twin?'

This is a tricky one to answer as the infrastructure digital twin is yet to be defined. However, when compared to other industries that have achieved a digital twin, the answer has to be 'No'.

BIM certainly has a significant role to play in the modern digital twin, however BIM is not a digital twin in isolation. To put it another way, a digital twin can be delivered without BIM, relying instead on the integration of real time monitoring and control systems with enterprise IT.

What is a digital twin?

As stated above there are many definitions.

The simplest explanation is to say that a digital twin enables 'What If' questions to be answered. A rail operator may want to find out, for example, what would happen if they switched to a new type of steel for rail track, understanding the impact on associated rail assets. Existing finite element modelling (FEM) can address these issues but as detailed in the Re-engineering Aircraft Structural Life Prediction Using a Digital Twin, written by Eric J. Tuegel and colleagues of the Cornell University, FEM has its limitations. The multi physics simulations are themselves separate models and the digital twin can bring together the various models for a more comprehensive analysis.

This is really the key to the digital twin. It is the complete integration of asset, enterprise, modelling and real time systems coupled with advanced analytics to drive insight that has not been possible to date. Some people even include digital processes and people data to be part of a 'complete' digital twin. Limitations up to now have really been the compute power and lack of skills to implement something so complex at the scale of infrastructure assets.  However, modern advances in cloud technology and low or no code tools, means this is starting to look genuinely feasible.

It is fair to say that a digital twin is less about the underlying technology, it is more about integration of existing data sets to create a complete, interconnected view of all assets, their performance over time and ultimately optimisation of asset and business related activities. I guess this is why the digital twin has been touted as an Internet of Things (IoT) initiative, leveraging modern IoT technology to create a 'system of systems' enabling advanced analytics to be put to use.

Setting the standard

On a personal front, supported by Costain, I have been given the go ahead to work towards this vision of an infrastructure digital twin, working with many industry stakeholders to consider what this really means for UK infrastructure and how it can benefit society as a whole.

Earlier this year I instigated a crowd-funding initiative that has brought key players in the infrastructure industry together to work on a collaborative programme with the British Standards Institution (BSI Group).   

We are leveraging the Costain modular platform architecture to achieve this, enabling the digital twin to start small and evolve over time, without the need for systemic change. Instead we can leverage current investments in technology to reduce implementation costs across the value chain, delivering maximum value to our clients and the end customer (myself included!).

Working with organisations such as Fluor, HS2, Aecom and Kieeir we are about to start work on setting definitions and agreeing best practice with the BSI that will help map the journey for the digital twin.

Very exciting times ahead.

I’m pleased to announce that techUK’s latest podcast ‘Brit-twin: Towards a national digital twin’ is now available online.