As faithful replicas of a manufacturing process, a building or even a city, digital twin prototypes are becoming more common in construction. The idea is to increase efficiency and boost sustainability. How do virtual twins work? How can they help and what limitations do they have? Above all, what does the future look like in a sector striving to achieve carbon neutrality? We take a closer look.
April 1970. Following an explosion, the American Apollo 13 space mission between the Earth and the Moon veered towards a deadly scenario. In a bid to save the crew, NASA ground crews carried out a string of different simulation exercises using an exact replica of the Apollo capsule. Mission accomplished. “This event was undoubtedly the beginning of the ‘technical twin’ idea,” explains Renaud Jahan, Chief Information Officer Innovation at Saint-Gobain. The concept was given the name “digital twin” in 2002 by John Vickers, Director of NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing, as part of the American space agency’s “2010 Roadmap” initiative.
But what exactly is a digital twin? In simple terms, a digital twin is none other than the virtual representation of an object, system or process. It can take the form of a vehicle, a production line, a building, even an entire city (Singapore has been fully replicated as a digital twin). Anything – or almost anything – can now be cloned using artificial intelligence, data and calculations. But this “super double agent” obviously requires data if it is to work properly. And plenty of it. Real-world data, harnessed using smart sensors. The system is called the Internet of Things (IoT). Once the data has been classified, analyzed and digested within “data factories”, often in the cloud, this data then feeds a digital twin, which will be able to create learning models, simulate scenarios, make predictions or automate systems.
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Virtual clones and production lines
The possibilities for digital twins in sectors such as aerospace, automotive or aeronautics are obvious. Hundreds of models could be created, and complex or problematic situations studied and simulated (especially accidents), in order to choose the most appropriate solution.
Now the construction sector is starting to take a close interest in the concept of digital twins. Here, many different lookalikes of material production chains can be created. “Using digital clones, we can for instance identify any risks of failure in advance and remedy them through preventive maintenance,” explains Renaud Jahan. “It is also possible to simulate and then develop scenarios to optimize the energy efficiency of a specific line.” For example, the manufacture of plasterboard is still energy intensive, especially during the drying process. By faithfully reproducing this line digitally, it is possible to come up with various ways of improving performance.
Exploring a thousand scenarios
Digital twins are also proving useful for R&D teams who want to know how materials will behave before they start manufacturing them. There are endless expected benefits: time savings, more possibilities, better profitability, but also increased energy performance, because the entire life cycle can be analyzed, including how products are recycled. Digital twins make it possible to explore multiple avenues and finally allow the right to error, by simulating scenarios as many times as needed.
For Project teams, this virtual clone will naturally interface with the BIM (building information modeling) system, because they complement each other extremely well. On the one hand, BIM helps to organize the construction site and keep communication lines open between the various stakeholders by sharing information. On the other, the virtual twin constantly interacts with the site and brings a “live” element into play, between the physical structure and the digital avatar. And there’s one huge benefit to all that: safety. An example of that would be a worker in a smart hard hat that can notify the wearer as soon as they approach a potential danger.
During the building’s operational phase, digital twins can also serve as “guinea pigs” to carry out simulations or predictions, in response to their environment or how they will be used. The most successful version of a twin will be able to configure the solar panels on a building depending on its exposure! Finally, during the end-of-life phase, digital twins will be able to predict deconstruction methods or decide which materials should be recovered first.
If the new systems are to be deployed, there will obviously need to be profound transformations within companies, and people will need to accept these new technologies. At Saint-Gobain, this approach is the result of a “multi-player” collaboration between the R&D department, the teams responsible for industrial performance, digital teams (data and cloud in particular), and customers who are developing their own digital twins.
All stakeholders need to be on board if a company is to become familiar with this technology and fully understand the issues it presents and the precautions it requires. Whenever data is used, it needs protecting, especially when it comes to personal or sensitive industrial data. That’s why organizations are obliged to collect generic data (flows, movements) that is totally anonymous. Another point of vigilance is obviously the cybersecurity of connected buildings and production lines.
This is true on an industrial scale. But even more so for an entire region! Because for the past ten years, a few avant-garde cities such as Singapore and Rennes (France), have developed their own digital avatars. Since then, around twenty similar projects have popped up around the world, in Geneva (Switzerland), Lyon (France) and London (United Kingdom). There are many benefits to these territorial digital twins. They make it easier to organize and run infrastructures and they optimize network and equipment maintenance. More generally, they help to reduce carbon emissions in cities, because operational flows are managed better, while energy is optimized in buildings (heating, air conditioning, lighting) and predictive equipment maintenance is performed.
And that is surely the whole point of digital twins: helping to develop a truly low-carbon economy. For R&D, they make it possible to better understand the life cycle of a material or a product even before it is produced. They can also simulate its behavior to achieve optimal carbon efficiency, even as it gets older. In design, digital twins are unrivaled in their ability to create the most virtuous installation, deconstruction and recycling scenarios. On construction sites, they will optimize flow management and material consumption by delivering the right quantity at the right time. They are essential for controlling an environment remotely (lighting, heating, air conditioning depending on external conditions, etc.), and will also be able to carry out maintenance operations and simulate renovation or dismantlement operations. Digital twins can be used to ensure a consistent low-carbon approach: how to do better while consuming less energy and raw materials.
In short, with more and more virtual twins being used in cities and industries, projects are accelerating, products and infrastructures are being analyzed from every possible angle, and each decision is made after studying a multitude of scenarios until the one with the best carbon efficiency can be chosen.
More sustainable, easier to repair and upgrade, they respond more precisely to the needs of customers, users… and above all the planet!
Photos credit : Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock et DC Studio/Shutterstock