Skip to main content

Articles & Blogs

7 ½ Reasons Using a Digital Twin for Your Next Construction Project Makes Solid Business Sense

Remember the Vdara Death Ray? Let me jog your memory …

Back in 2010, the Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas, designed by Rafael Viñoly, started burning people. The curved glass edifice acted like a magnifying glass, concentrating sun rays into beams so intense they melted plastic bags and scorched poolside guests.

The hotel put up bigger sun umbrellas to protect people – but just three years later, Viñoly made the same mistake again, in London. On an unusually sunny day (for England) light reflected from his famous “walkie-talkie” skyscraper in the financial district and melted bike seats and the side-view mirror off a Jaguar car. Its curved shape also turned out to be a wind trap, creating gusts powerful enough to knock passers-by to the ground.

Here’s what Viñoly told a newspaper at the time:

“I knew this was going to happen, but there was a lack of tools or software that could be used to analyze the problem accurately … We judged the temperature was going to be about 36 degrees [Celsius], but it’s turned out to be more like 72 degrees.”

Having spent years battling bad press, demands for compensation and ineffective ways to fix these problems, it must be galling for Viñoly that, a decade on, the technology he lacked is now commercially available. Digital twins mean that multi-million-dollar disasters like these should soon be a thing of the past.

But what exactly are digital twins? How do they work? And how can they benefit construction companies?

What are Digital Twins?

A digital twin is a virtual representation of any object or process. It lasts for the entire lifecycle of the object and is updated in real-time, using data from sensors, connected systems and other inputs.

This means that, at any time, you can check in on the state of the real, physical object and all its components. You can also use simulations to see how it will react to different scenarios and external conditions.

How are Digital Twins Used in Other Industries?

Digital twins are already common in sectors like aviation and manufacturing.

Companies such as Boeing create digital twins of airplanes so engineers can test the virtual version without putting anyone at risk. For example, it allows engineers to check how an airplane responds to extreme weather conditions. In manufacturing, digital twins often replace physical prototypes, allowing designers and developers to stress-test products without splashing out on a physical model for every iteration.

But it’s not just about testing hypothetical situations. Digital twins of physical assets mean you can track exactly what’s happening to the real asset, right now. If something goes wrong, you can visualize it and figure out how to tackle it on the digital twin, rather than scrambling to interpret data from on-site systems or making high-stakes alterations without first knowing if they will work.

Why Would You Use Digital Twins in Construction?

For construction companies, there are seven (and a half) major reasons to embrace this new technology.

1. It Saves You Money: When you’re doing everything you can to avoid going over budget, the last thing you want is to be confronted with unexpected costs.

That might mean crews turning up for work before the building is ready for them. Discovering you ordered more materials than you need or rent expensive equipment for too long. That the building interior is too damp, humid, hot or cold, and you need to tackle that before you progress.

With a digital twin and the right sensors, you aren’t faced with nasty surprises like these because you can check in on every part of the asset in real-time. That helps you anticipate escalating costs – and nip them in the bud.

2. It Keeps You Ahead of Schedule: Total visibility over your construction project is vital for keeping you on track. When you’re on a tight turnaround, you need to be able to see exactly what stage you’re at and what’s been completed, so you can green-light follow-on tasks, order materials and components and/or rearrange schedules swiftly to avoid further delays. That’s exactly what a digital twin allows you to do.

3. You Have a Clear Information Trail: When you hand over your finished construction project to the building owners, you don’t just give them the keys and wish them good luck. You also provide all the information they need to operate that building safely and successfully.

Some owners just want the basics – enough to manage the space and organize future repairs and upgrades. Others want to know everything, especially if the building has unusual components that complicate the re-ordering process, like window shapes that need to be cut into a unique pattern. Rather than adapting your documentation process to every new clients’ demands, a digital twin means that all the building information is streamlined into one place, which the customer can use at will. Plus, it’s all automated, so you give them more flexibility and visibility – with the less extra hassle for you.

4. It Makes Communication Easier: It’s hard to keep everyone up to speed with the progress of a project if data is siloed and all stakeholders use their system. If you have to wait for an in-person meeting to update colleagues, partners, contractors and customers, some information will, inevitably, already be stale. A digital twin ensures you’re always looking at the very latest version, so you don’t have to waste time bringing everyone up to date or calling around to fill in gaps in your knowledge before each conversation.

5. It’s a Key Part of Any Digital Transformation Strategy: Digital transformation is a key priority for businesses of all types, but the construction industry often lags, to the frustration of customers and partners. Accommodating the shift can seem daunting, but a digital twin is an easy win that benefits everyone along the chain, helping you to stay competitive.

6. You Get More ROI from Your Existing Tech: Smart buildings are fast becoming standard – and that means there are already sensors everywhere. Your building’s HVAC system is collecting data. Individual items of equipment are collecting data. You may have technology set up to measure energy performance or to monitor security on-site.

Why not squeeze a bit more value out of it all? Why not put all the data you’re collecting to practical use? Integrating your existing sensors with a digital twin will instantly increase the ROI of those investments.

7. It Improves Safety: Running simulations on your building’s digital twin can expose all kinds of problems, from structural integrity issues to Vdara-death-ray design flaws. You can test how it would fare in a major crisis like an earthquake or model, or how easily people could be evacuated in a fire, for example, improving building safety.

What’s more, since the digital twin mirrors the situation on the ground in real-time, you can also monitor safety on the job site during the construction process. This helps to identify risks, preventing incidents and accidents.

… And the “Half Reason”: Because Despite the Name, It’s Not Just a Buzzword

Every few months it seems there’s a shiny new buzzword for everyone to jump on. Just look at BIM, where some vendors have gone from offering 3D model representation to advertising 4D to 5D to 12D and beyond.

Many in the construction industry may be tempted to dismiss futuristic-sounding tech like “digital twins” as the same breed of marketing jargon … but it’s not. Digital twins have real value. Keeping an open mind on this one is important, even if buzzwords make you squirm.

Final Thoughts: Tech Should Always Reduce – Not Increase – Your Workload

Digital twins allow you to monitor absolutely everything and anything you could want, right down to the tiniest nut or bolt or screw. The question is, though, do you want that? Will tracking every detail help you? The answer is, probably not.

And this is the key to making digital twins work for your project. When you come to adopt digital twins – and judging by the trajectory other industries have taken, it’s a question of when not if – it’s important to bear this in mind. To focus on aspects that a) have a measurable bearing on your schedule and budget, and b) translate into operationally useful information for the building owner.

Digital twins are excellent tools for boosting ROI, and they’re designed to make your job easier. It’s not a magic bullet to solve all your construction headaches. Using them to micromanage every tiny detail may get exhausting. But they provide a genuinely groundbreaking way to gain total visibility over your construction project, boost the efficiency of your assets and iron out potentially expensive problems later on.

In short, digital twins are set to play a crucial role in the construction sector going forward. Dismiss them at your peril.

Learn more about digital twins and HxGN Smart Build™ Insight.

About the Author

Daron is a senior industry consultant for Hexagon’s PPM division for AEC and Buildings & Infrastructure. He has a bachelor’s degree in architectural engineering from Fairmont State University and a master’s degree in architecture, construction and sustainability from Virginia Tech. He is based in Charleston, S.C., USA.

Profile Photo of Daron Pardine