What is a digital twin and how can it be used for smart facilities management?
‘Digital twin’ is a term you might have come across if you’ve done any reading on the internet of things (IoT). It’s defined by IBM as ‘a virtual representation of a physical object or system across its lifecycle, using real-time data to enable understanding, learning and reasoning.’
It may sound like science fiction, but in fact it’s just a form of modelling – albeit a very advanced, very complex one. A digital twin replicates a thing or system in a digital form. That thing could be a car, a bridge, or a buildings management system.
How is this useful? Because by looking at the digital twin, we can see how the real-life object or system is functioning now, and how it will function in a range of hypothetical scenarios, throughout its lifecycle. It helps us to learn more, faster. It lets us design and engineer better, fit-for-purpose solutions, and continually refine them.
‘Digital twin is the ability to take a virtual representation of the elements and dynamics of how an IoT device operates and lives throughout its lifecycle… It’s about understanding the elements that compose it, and the dynamics of how that device is put together.’
Chris O’Connor, IBM
How it works
To create a digital twin, you need data. It will need to be fed static information, such as floor plans, and the layout of pipes and heating and ventilation systems, plus real-time data including temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and more. It will also need to know the relevant parameters, such as the type of building, and objectives, such as energy targets.
To have that stream of real-time data at your disposal, you need sensors. A digital twin uses data from connected sensors to tell you how the asset is functioning and will function throughout its lifecycle. By mapping this data onto the digital twin, you can use it to understand how the physical asset is performing in real time, in the real world.
In this way, digital twins give manufacturers and businesses an unprecedented view into how their products are performing. Or, to borrow from facilitiesnet.com’s Ken Sinclair, it provides service transparency. To understand more about why transparency is important, there’s also a brilliant example here.
‘Commercial building owners are feeling the pressure to embrace technology and invest in intelligent building solutions that provide a better level of transparency as well as access to real-time data for operations, productivity, comfort, and sustainability.’
Marc Petock, automatedbuildings.com
Enabling smart facilities management
It’s easy to see how a working digital replica of a building’s spaces, assets, equipment and processes could benefit facilities managers. Firstly it allows us to operate and troubleshoot systems from remote locations, enabling is to lets us improve the productivity and comfort of building occupants, use facilities efficiently and avoid wasting energy. Secondly, the model can be used to test how different variables and scenarios could affect performance, as well as go back in time to examine the causes of past issues.
It can also be used to predict future failures and general performance, allowing us to undertake predictive maintenance rather than fixing faults as they occur. According to Dr Hari Gunasingham of Eutech Cybernetics, delivering a presentation entitled ‘Digital Transformation & Cloud Platform Services to Deliver Smart Buildings’ at the 2018 Smart Buildings Show, businesses stand to reduce costs by over 30% by switching to predictive operation and management.
In short, a digital twin of your building and systems, informed by real-time smart sensor data, reveals the hidden data points that can transform the way facilities are controlled and managed.
Facilities operations are believed to be the fourth or fifth highest cost for organisations. Whatever the percentage, further insight into the hidden workings of a building management system gives facilities managers the ability to optimise systems, create additional value and understand and prevent prospective problems.