As digital twins advance beyond BIM and GIS, what do you need to know? Bentley Systems’ founder Keith Bentley offers insights and advice for engaging in this growing field of solutions.
Image above: Singapore, recognized as a global leader in infrastructure design and development, was the venue for the Bentley Year in Infrastructure 2019 event. This is the iconic Bay Sands conference center and hotel. Credit: Charles Teng.
Editor’s note: In just a few short years we’ve see digital twins grow from an AEC buzz term to successful implementation on many prominent and large-scale infrastructure projects worldwide, enabling true digital collaboration and 4D construction methods. Keith Bentley—who not only embraced digital twins early, but also oversaw the development of specific tools and solution for implementation—adapted the following article from his keynote address at Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure (YII) conference and awards event in Singapore in 2019.
His company, Bentley Systems, is a “global provider of software solutions to engineers, architects, geospatial professionals, constructors, and owner-operators for the design, construction, and operations of infrastructure, including public works, utilities, industrial plants, and digital cities.
Our industry is quickly catching on to the significant gains that can be realized by digital twins, with more than half of all large industrial companies expected to use digital twins in some form by 2021. [Gartner: “Prepare for the Impact of Digital Twins,” 2017]. Digital twins are rapidly advancing from vision to reality, and many organizations have already put digital twin ideas into action.
What Is a Digital Twin?
The term “digital twin” is commonly used now, and infrastructure professionals are beginning to intuitively understand what a digital twin is and what it does. Bentley did not invent the term or concept of a digital twin; in fact, the term did not even originate in the infrastructure industry.
I believe that the concept of digital twins is quite simple. If you have a physical asset as well as a digital asset that would represent everything in the physical asset, you could join them together, using the digital one for understanding what is happening with the physical one in the real world.
The one problem, however, is that assets change all the time. Even a large-scale infrastructure asset that may not change all that much in its entirety will have some part of it change every day.
A digital twin must connect the physical world to the digital world, and if your digital twin does not reflect the current state in the real world, not only is it not going to be valuable, but it could be dangerous. This connection also means that the reverse can be true: the digital world needs to connect to the physical world, allowing you to change the digital representation in preparation for changes that you plan to make to the physical asset.
Think about how things change over time: a digital twin is about marrying the two worlds and keeping them in sync. That idea makes a digital twin different from anything before it.
While digital twins must have that dimension of time, they must also have context.
If you have sensors out in the real world that are telling you what is happening, you should be able to visualize that data with your digital twin. Things like reality capture, such as what Bentley’s ContextCapture provides, should be a part of the digital twin.
Simply put, a digital twin is a connection of data sources. Sometimes, those data sources are created by software like design applications. Sometimes, they are combined with other systems.
The value of a digital twin will grow and multiply when connections are formed. The more connections, the greater the value. Digital twins provide opportunities, such as to improve the processes that exist today. They can help you with costs, safety, resilience, and even your carbon footprint.
However, digital twins also provide the opportunity to change the business process. If industry professionals can improve their metrics—such as cost efficiency and safety—they are creating value. If that added value can be ascribed to the person who made it possible, the industry has a selfish motive: improving the bottom line for the asset’s entire lifecycle.
Ultimately, I believe that opportunity and optimism are the value that a digital twin can bring to the infrastructure industry—value that can provide significant advantages.
Describing Digital Twin Deployment
When people start describing how you should deploy a digital twin, the one word that comes to mind is “flexibility.”
While no one knows what a digital twin is going to be five years from now, it will certainly be connected to more systems than are possible today. The industry wants the flexibility to change as requirements change and as opportunities become possible that were not before. In software terms, and what we at Bentley believe, that means being open.
Infrastructure professionals want the flexibility to be able to take data and combine it with other data sources, send it to other systems, or give it to another vendor to have them write software. While that does not mean you should start becoming programmers, you should have the flexibility to do that if you choose.
Not everything is going to be perfect, and it is not all going to work the first time. With software development, you need to be agile and work within the cycle of build, measure, learn. For Bentley, this cycle is ongoing and repeats every three weeks. Even if you build something, you run it, you test it, and you see whether your hypothesis is being satisfied. If it is not, you adjust. That cycle repeats quickly, allowing you to react to whatever works and stop doing whatever does not work.
Creating a digital twin does not require stopping anything that you are already doing. Once you are more familiar with digital twins, then you may decide to stop doing manual processes, such as creating PDF files. You will be much happier if you start with a successful project and adapt from there rather than trying to switch everything at once.
As digital twins continue to be implemented, the industry will continue to see changes in the technology landscape. One place where infrastructure professionals want to see advancements with digital twins is with machine learning. As you begin or continue thinking about where you and your projects can use digital twins, a good starting point is visiting bentley.com/iTwin.
Bentley’s Early Influence on AEC
xyHt’s Gavin Schrock caught up with Keith Bentley at the YII 2019 press dinner and reported the following.
“I told Keith about the time, nearly three decades ago, when I caught one of his demonstrations of his newly developed design software—a forerunner to MicroStation and their other design solutions. In contrast to the huge workstations accessing mainframe systems we used at the time, this workstation-based solution, developed by this bright young engineer, seemed like a glimpse of the future—and indeed it was.
“It was great to have an opportunity to thank Keith for the fruits of his forward thinking and how those humble beginnings really did change the world of AEC and infrastructure.”
Read more about the history of Bentley in our 2018 feature, “Infrastructure, BIM, and the Brothers Bentley.”