What exactly is a digital twin?
A digital twin is a dynamic digital representation of the built and natural environment that can be used to plan, visualise, report on and control assets and operations. Essentially you design, build, operate and maintain both physical and digital assets – with the digital twin helping to inform the lifecycle management of your project or program of works.
“In very simple terms, it helps us to understand what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen,” explains Damien Cutcliffe, Director of Business Development and Growth - Digital. “The data rich model is what has happened, real-time remote sensing shows us what is happening, and predictive modelling and simulation assesses what will happen.”
Digital twins have the potential to significantly change how we manage operations, providing a level of awareness of not only current circumstances, but also predicting what may happen if a change is implemented.
The digital twin is kept in sync with the real-world asset through sensors and other sources of data in, or close to, real time. If you were to look at a digital twin of a section of motorway, you’d be able to see exactly how that stretch of road was performing at that moment – including, for example, the traffic flow in each lane or the amount of surface water and the performance of the drainage system.
The benefits: optimising processes and making decisions in real-time to improve outcomes.
The digital twin can also contain historic information, including the original design specification and information on construction and maintenance. All the data affecting key operational decisions about the asset is accessible in one place, providing a much higher level of reliability as a record of current conditions – therefore potentially reducing the need to undertake additional survey of the existing highway prior to construction or upgrade works. This is particularly beneficial as such surveys can be expensive, time-consuming and hazardous.
“It can be used through design, construction and maintenance phases to show what you need and when,: adds Damien “For example, on the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project, we developed and continue to support a system to monitor the air quality, noise and vibrations during major tunnelling and excavation works, and if specific parameters are exceeded, people are notified immediately.”
“The bit we are particularly interested in is predictive maintenance. Rather than having scheduled maintenance, we can predict when things will need to be inspected and maintained by using data and making more informed decisions on when assets will need to be serviced, upgraded or replaced, leading to more cost effective and sustainable outcomes.”
Brett Buhagiar, Digital Engineering Operations Lead, says that clever data management will allow for digital twins to talk to each other. For example, both NSW and Victorian governments are currently planning their respective state-wide implementation of digital twins.
He says, “These two states will eventually have their own spatial digital twin which interfaces with the Federal Government’s National Map. With structured workflows, you can easily allow for the relevant information to be shared and maintained from the original location, without the need for copying data back and forth. This reduces the need for multiple custodians of a single data set and can lead to greater reliability of data and the removal of wasted time and money.”
The NSW Spatial Digital Twin represents an exciting move by a state government to establish a self-service platform, with the aim of breaking down the information silos which currently exist. This is a significant undertaking and comes in response to recent natural disasters which have focussed attention on the value of reliable data, particularly during major events. WSP are honoured to be part of the team working with the NSW Government delivering the four technical components that make up their final business case.
To do this there needs to be a more standardised approach to how information is securely captured, received, shared, hosted and maintained. The digital twin will foster a more structured and data-driven approach to how we operate, providing a decision support tool enabling users to rapidly build insight.
Are we seeing results?
“Governments are definitely seeing the benefits of data use in infrastructure,” adds Brett. “Last year, New South Wales released its Smart Infrastructure Policy which sets out the minimum requirements for smart technology to be embedded in all new and upgraded infrastructure, while the City of Newcastle created the Smart City Intelligent Platform.
“There are so many ways digital twins can be used, from predicting and mitigating problems before they occur to modelling and testing different configurations to see how operational decisions will impact performance of an asset. All levels of organisations can benefit from using digital twin data from federal, state and local governments, to network and utility providers, from developers through to researchers.”
However, you can’t have an interconnected set of data without having secure systems, Damien says.
“Information security management is critical to being able to have smart infrastructure, you don’t want your traffic lights to be suddenly hacked and have them all turning green.”
“WSP holds ISO27001 certification, which is the industry standard of information security management, similar to the quality standards we have for engineering. It is paramount that any data we create and manage is robustly secured, and our systems and processes are regularly assessed to ensure that we maintain the highest standards. Rigorous compliance with ISO27001 is something we take very seriously. Our customers rely on us to keep their systems robust and their data secure, this can range from sensitive information about the public, right through to critical infrastructure.”
What does this mean for the future of engineering?
Digital twin technology is reshaping the foundation of engineering by combining data from human experts with machine intelligence to drive the evolution of work in new and unexplored ways. The area of robotic process automation is aimed at removing tedious tasks, freeing up our professionals to focus on higher value engineering activities.
“Longer term it will get to a point where we can have a less biased approach to how we plan, engineer, deliver and get work approved,” concludes Damien. “We will deliver solutions based on defined performance targets, along with more binary functional and non-functional requirements. Who knows, perhaps in the future proposed solutions will be inputted into the digital twin and some reviews will become automated.
“The immediate future is that we can offer a variety of digital twin technology to fully explore and validate new planning and design options, or develop improved operational processes for our clients. The real power and benefit of the digital twin is that it links the virtual environment to the real world and allows us to fully leverage important data from one single source of truth.”
To learn more about Digital Twins, contact Damien Cutcliffe or Brett Buhagiar.