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Brit-twin: Transforming the UK's infrastructure

Author: Kevin Reeves, Group Head IoT and Data Services at Costain

One quote that continually sticks in my mind is from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said "The only thing that is constant is change". How very true.

Over the five years I have been at Costain the business has changed significantly, and continues to transform in response to changing market conditions. The pace of change is really quite phenomenal, largely thanks to the rapid technological advances that are leaving most industries wondering how to keep pace.

So given technology is advancing at an unbelievable rate and methodologies are evolving to cope with the pace of change, the question remains; what will emerge that will be transformational to UK infrastructure?

My view for a few years has been that Digital Twin is the largest opportunity for UK infrastructure as we stand today, which will be further boosted in the future by quantum computing. Certainly, within industry this view is starting to gain traction, not just within our technology communities but importantly executive boards.

Digital transformation, which unlocks the Digital Twin, is recognised by the Digital Taskforce and forms a key part of realising productivity gains set out in the ICE Project 13 report. The release of the Gemini Principles by the Centre for Digital Built Britain, which I had the pleasure of reviewing, is an excellent first step in starting to shape the principles and guidelines for a national digital twin. This report defines an infrastructure digital twin as: (in the context of Digital Built Britain) “a realistic digital representation of assets, processes or systems in the built or natural environment”.

Why do us digital twin enthusiasts believe it has such significant value?

To answer this, you need to get into the detail of what a digital twin really is. If you strip away the applications, technologies and processes that make up a digital twin you are left with enterprise lifecycle information management. Fundamentally a digital twin is about effective, consistent management of information relating to our UK infrastructures, which will unlock insight not currently possible today. Whilst this sounds very simplistic the reality is really very different; with a background in control system engineering where digital twin has evolved, I have first-hand knowledge of just how wonderfully complex these systems can be.

This complexity however is overshadowed by the value that is created as result. Having data from disparate sources integrated across an enterprise can drive tremendous efficiencies as we have started to see with Building Information Modelling (BIM) and other digital transformation activities. In control systems engineering in manufacturing for example - my background - the skill is in integrating what were previously isolated systems to create a fully automated process. With digital twin this will typically extend to enterprise resource planning integration and some form of execution system to optimise enterprise as a whole.

From experience, productivity gains or increases in output are typically north of 20% through integration and process automation. Whole life cost and product management can then be continually improved and optimised using advanced analysis, unlocked through the digital twin.

Of course doing this within the confines of a factory is vastly different from the challenges faced in infrastructure, where assets are incredibly complex, often bespoke and geographically diverse. However, the underlying principles of consistent information management through integration of silo'd data and streamlined, automated process is applicable to any industry. No doubt given the incredibly diverse nature of the supply chains a national digital twin will unlock new opportunities for revenue with a more collaborative, integrated approach to the delivery and management of UK infrastructures.

To test some of these beliefs and ambitions we are collaborating with the Digital Taskforce, British Standards Institute, PETRAS, owner operators of UK infrastructure and supply chains to start to put some of the theory into practical application. This collaboration will ultimately de-risk investments across the value chain and provide valuable feedback to the Digital Taskforce who will be setting policy.

When we get this right in the UK, I have no doubt we will unlock international opportunities for UK PLC and all those committed to its success.

Kevin's blog was first published for TechUK. Kevin presented at the TechUK event 'Brit Twin: towards a national digital twin' conference on 22 January 2019.