Why twinning is all the rage in infrastructure

Posted on 16 July 2021

Within the infrastructure sector, digital twins have been a long time coming. However, momentum is finally building, and one infrastructure project, here in the UK, is being hailed as a landmark example of digital twinning in the project phase.

It’s part of the SCS Railways project to deliver the 25k southern section of the £106bn HS2 railway between London and Birmingham. Huge benefits to stakeholders, from the engineers on site, to end users and tax payers, are anticipated.

SCS is a joint venture between Skanska, Costain and STRABAG, and working with HS2, they are together connecting the digital model of southern section project, with the quality control and inspection documentation. This approach has the potential to completely change the way the construction process is managed, delivering higher quality and more accurate inspection and quality control records, that can be stored in a digital twin and passed over to the client to maintain the railway going forward.

SCS and HS2 have committed to digital twin technology

To achieve this, SCS are implementing a fully integrated end-to-end process, from design to construction to operation, connecting the engineering data, quality documentation with real-time reporting to benefit the entire project.

In practical terms, the SCS digital twin project will remove the use of paper, enhance collaboration and support innovation, as well as helping address the cost efficiency remit. It will allow designers, engineers, architects and suppliers to input into SCS’s digital twin, using the Zutec platform. Being able to create a project twin of this size is an impressive feat.

This approach is based on a bold, revolutionary digital strategy and ‘Digital Blueprint’ for BIM, developed by SCS, which will both help to meet the Government’s targets of saving money on digital efficiencies, and streamline the construction process. Already, the HS2 project is estimated to cost as much as £106bn, however, the project delivery authority has been told to find at least £500 million in digital efficiencies.

Late arrival of digital twinning in construction engineering

Digital twin application in civil engineering has been limited to date, due to the slow adoption of BIM, prohibitive technology costs, legacy systems and cultural aversion to change. We’ve lagged behind advanced manufacturing and the space research sectors, for example.

Five years ago The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) called for contractors and the Government to use major infrastructure projects as incubators for skills and innovation. This SCS project is therefore taking a big step in the right direction for such improvements to be made.

Accurate records and enhanced collaboration

The benefits are already being seen. Higher quality and more accurate records can be collated and stored in the SCS digital twin, supported by real-time reporting, and this is streamlining workflows and speeding up inspection and quality assurance processes as the railway build progresses. Project engineers and contractors can benefit from enhanced collaboration and minimised room for error. Crucially, the client is given access to an accurate, final digital asset twin, allowing them to more easily manage the asset.

Cloud-based software for this type of project also supports supply chain integration by giving suppliers access to the BIM data lake—the database of all engineering data—which can be managed through pre-populated forms. This enables suppliers to meet expectations and plan ahead.

Using the Zutec platform has also allowed SCS to integrate seamlessly with the client, and supply chain, embedding digital techniques and knowledge into their company culture through engagement and support.

Connected digital twins are the future

High profile digital twin projects like this will pave the way for mainstream adoption of the mirroring technology. The National Digital Twin programme launched in 2018 explores what will be possible with connected digital twinning used to underpin urban infrastructure management. Led by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Digital Built Britain t aspires to an ecosystem of connected digital twins to foster better outcomes from our built environment.

There’s also been successful use of digital twins on a portfolio of major buildings in Canary Wharf, London.

Governments envisage whole ecosystems of digital twins that could result in a city constantly learning from information gathered, combining multiple data sources to continually improve everything that residents interact with.

To get to this stage, it’s important to move from data integration to data interoperability. Data standards to drive interoperability should be prioritised to make data appropriately accessible and usable across all platforms. Equally, data security issues must be addressed to avoid transport systems or whole cities being shut down due to ransomware attacks. Infrastructure information held on the internet is vulnerable to cyberattack if not carefully protected.

Quality documentation could be your digital twin’s first step

Our sector’s digital transformation is gaining momentum now, with digital twins becoming a reality for operators for modelling, and live data interchange. Incoming legislation will soon make BIM and digital twin technology mandatory. Another driver is the attraction of tighter cost control. Which asset owners and contractors would waive an opportunity to boost productivity and profit margin in the current climate?

We believe the HS2 project’s level of connection between the model and the quality documentation with real-time reporting, is unique in the construction industry, and has the potential to drive the whole sector toward true construction excellence.

The benefits speak for themselves: transparency, accountability, minimising risk and errors, compliance, and guaranteeing the client has access to accurate, up-to-date data attached to its digital twin. The explosion in this technology is finally coming. Don’t get left behind.

* Tom Boland is global head of digitalisation at Zutec, Peter Ruff is group head of BIM at Costain, and Anita Soni is deputy head of BIM Skanska Infrastructure

Share this article