Sky’s the limit for digital twins – but we must build them collaboratively

The key lessons learned from delivering digital twins are that effective collaboration from the outset of a project is essential for successful implementation, says Ibrahim Atta-Apau of Atkins.

Digital twins are helping organisations worldwide to integrate stakeholders, data and processes to drive intelligent decision-making. As digital representations of physical assets, they have the potential to rapidly respond to changes, forecast future states and outcomes through the analysis of real-time data and simulate physical and operational characteristics of an asset to enable accurate predictions. 

To confirm whether a digital twin is the right solution in a given situation, however, it’s important to look carefully at the different stakeholders who may use or interact with it, to fully understand the needs of each end-user, and quantify the gains that they and the overall business, are set to derive from the twin. 

To that end, when Atkins was recently commissioned by Thames Water to undertake a discovery phase for a digital twin for Beckton Waste Water Treatment Works, one of the largest sewage plants in Europe covering over 250 acres and treating the waste of over 3.5 million customers, we explored a range of end user personas. This was done in an effort to understand each user’s individual requirements, how they would interact with the twin in practice and how the twin would drive wider business benefits. 

From operations manager to engineer, investment planner to maintenance manager, each person’s responsibilities were detailed, as well as the capabilities they were looking for, what the digital twin would enable them to do and the associated business benefit to Thames Water. Through this approach, we estimated that the Beckton digital twin will deliver a 10-20% reduction in workforce planning, a 30-50% reduction in predictive maintenance, a 20-30% increase in data utilisation (reduction in data at rest) and a 20-40% reduction in reactive maintenance.

From then on, the actual implementation of the twin is about building a technology stack that is functional, scalable and future-proofed. Whilst we have found this approach to be reliable for developing digital twins on brownfield assets, it can be more challenging to apply on greenfield ones, as we discovered whilst developing a twin on the Trillium Line South Extension project in Ottawa, Canada (project pictured above). Because this is a new greenfield asset and not yet operational, we used the nearby Canada Line as a test case to validate the digital twin approach and ensure that its outcomes and advantages will be transferrable to Trillium.

Digital twins are about far more than a visual

There is a common misconception that digital twins are primarily about providing businesses with a 3D visual of their operations, but from our experience with clients, it’s increasingly about improving operational efficiency through digitising the enterprise. The question that most businesses are beginning to ask is - how can we take our daily business activities and funnel that information into a central data repository, in order to drive better business decisions? And not just ones that relate to the built environment, but also those that consider other functions across the entire value chain of a business, such as HR, finance, procurement, sales and facilities management. This is what digital twins are now capable of - digitising and analysing the whole enterprise.

Focus on collaboration

The main lessons learnt during our experience of delivering digital twins is that effective collaboration from the outset of a project is essential for successful implementation. For digital twins to reach their full potential, neither technology companies nor engineering firms within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector can work in isolation. A successful outcome requires all parties to collaborate and create a community where a range of different stakeholders can actively participate in moulding the evolution of the twin. 

This has been successfully demonstrated in the software engineering sector, where platforms such as Github have created a collaborative and community-driven approach to software development. We believe that a similar principle will apply to digital twins, where an ecosystem of consultants, contractors, technology vendors and software developers will work collaboratively to create the best solution possible, using a breadth of capabilities. This approach will clearly benefit the client and end users of the twin as a result. 

Why collaboration will turbocharge digital twins

In the same way that businesses are switching to cloud computing to drive large-scale business efficiencies, the growing adoption of digital twins is leading big tech firms, such as Amazon and Microsoft, to start looking at this space with increasing interest. This is a good thing as it presents an opportunity to supercharge digital transformation within the AEC sector and creates a collaborative environment that can facilitate modern methods of construction, improve supply chain management, and reduce the total cost of ownership. 

If client organisations can facilitate this process through collaborative contracting models, we can then start connecting digital twins and delivering significant efficiencies on a national, and potentially global, scale. 

Ibrahim Atta-Apau is a director at Atkins - a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group.