Why are digital twins of buildings both a challenge and a need?

The Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC), and Facilities Management (FM) sectors operate as a complex network of interrelated stakeholders, who increasingly depend on the exchange of information across organizational boundaries to attain more efficient use of resources [1], time and cost reduction [2], increased productivity, improved business performance and overall quality of buildings [3-4].

The integration, sharing or linking of information throughout the entire life-cycle of a building (i.e. including phases before and after the construction project) has been described by key practitioners as an ongoing problem [5]. Concerns such as the use of standards, choosing the databases or repositories where the information will be stored, or agreeing on monetary compensation for the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) between companies are just a few of the factors that hinder the possibility of achieving horizontal information exchange across the industry, regardless of whether that information is already available or produced from new alliances [6].

Following recent developments in the fields of production and manufacturing, the term “digital twin” has been adopted in the built environment context to describe any cloud-based platform connecting heterogeneous information systems, such as FM applications, BIM tools, 3D models, external databases, or Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors, which are often scattered across organizational boundaries, in order to provide a full view over the entire life-cycle of a building. Businesses nowadays widely believe that a digital twin could enhance and increase the information exchange in processes that have been traditionally too complex, costly or inefficient, because they require the coordination of multiple actors.

However, existing research suggests that for many organizations, the business value of a digital twin is still unclear or difficult to communicate, even if the involved parties already possess the technical resources and capabilities to implement such solutions. One of the reasons is that the integration and information exchange needs for a digital twin are often determined on a per project-basis, in order to address specific use cases.

Considering the numerous difficulties and challenges to develop a digital twin, why is it still a goal worth pursuing? According to AEC/FM practitioners interviewed in past research studies, some of the scenarios where a digital twin can deliver added business value are:

  • Facilitating the automation of property maintenance, through continuous monitoring and faster problem detection
  • Managing shared resources across multiple building occupants, e.g. co-working spaces, meeting rooms or storage deposits
  • Optimizing heating, ventilation or electricity consumption, thus enhancing overall energy efficiency
  • Developing new commercial or public services for smart cities, which leverage on the data shared between different organizations

Besides the potential benefits for incumbent actors in the fields of construction and building operations, the digital twin has been also described as the basis of an emerging service ecosystem, which can enable the creation of innovative spin-off companies and Property Technology (“PropTech”) ventures, thus expanding the traditional boundaries of the AEC/FM industry.

References & further reading:

  1. R. Volk, J. Stengel, and F. Schultmann, “Building Information Modeling (BIM) for existing buildings — Literature review and future needs,” Automation in Construction, vol. 38, pp. 109–127, Mar. 2014.
  2. R. Vanlande, C. Nicolle, and C. Cruz, “IFC and building lifecycle management,” Automation in Construction, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 70–78, Dec. 2008.
  3. I. U. Ahmad, J. S. Russell, and A. Abou-Zeid, “Information technology (IT) and integration in the construction industry,” Construction Management and Economics, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 163–171, Mar. 1995.
  4. C. H. Nam and C. B. Tatum, “Noncontractual Methods of Integration on Construction Projects,” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, vol. 118, no. 2, pp. 385–398, Jun. 1992.
  5. J. C. Camposano and K. Smolander, “Inter-organizational Integration in the AEC/FM Industry: Exploring the ‘Addressed’ and ‘Unaddressed’ Information Exchange Needs Between Stakeholders,” in Advanced Information Systems Engineering, vol. 11483, P. Giorgini and B. Weber, Eds. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019, pp. 64–79.
  6. J. C. Camposano and K. Smolander, “Dialectic Tensions in the Context of Inter-organizational Integration,” ICIS 2019 Proceedings. Dec. 2019.
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