Digital Twin Explainer Series: Digital Twins vs. BIM

Date Published

19th May 2021

Valeria Ferrando
Associate Director - ICL Consultancy

As Industry 4.0 continues to drive the digital transformation and adoption of new technologies and processes across industries, it can be challenging to keep up with the onslaught of new terminology and jargon that comes with it. In this, our new Digital Twin explainer series, we will unpick some of these new and emerging terms and concepts as they relate to the built environment, starting with our first topic, explaining the difference between Digital Twins and Building Information Models (BIM).

Digital Twin is one term which has particularly exploded over the past few years. However, a Digital Twin is not an entirely new concept. NASA and manufacturing industries have been using the technology for some time now but it is only in more recent years that the technology has begun to gain traction across many different industries. Certainly, it is one trend which is steadily gaining momentum within the construction sector to transform the way we design, build and operate our buildings.

A common misconception is that a digital twin and a Building Information Model (BIM) constitute the same thing. However, it is important to recognise there are a number of key distinctions.

What is a Digital Twin?

A Digital Twin is essentially a virtual replica of a physical component or entity and the dynamics of that component or entity. This live twin gathers data and uses physics-based simulations to create a data rich living, breathing 1:1 model that behaves in the same way as its real-world counterpart. This means a digital twin can have many useful applications ranging from initial concept and design, through to continuous monitoring, fault detection and maintenance planning, and testing of new ideas or “what if” scenarios.

In the built environment, Digital Twins act as live digital models of physical buildings and communities and can function as problem-solvers, providing decision support information needed to improve asset performance, influence future building design and reduce risk. They provide a one on one representation of a building in-use, replacing design assumptions with real data and physics enabled calculations to result in a calibrated or operational model of the building which updates and responds in real-time.

How does this compare with BIM?

BIM has been around for decades and architects, engineers, and construction companies have long used building information modelling software to help them design and construct buildings.

A BIM model is a detailed model that provides a central point of reference throughout the lifecycle of a project. It is an important data repository which enables the visualisation and management of building data and facilitates collaboration across the whole project team. Information is updated at key project stages, however the BIM model remains very much a static representation or “snapshot in time” of the building, based largely on design assumptions or construction documents. Current BIM models do not include the dynamics of a live digital twin.

While in the UK, Level 3 BIM seeks to extend BIM into the operation of assets over their lifetimes, most current BIM models focus only on a building’s design and construction and they are often not built to facilitate the ongoing operational management and optimisation of the building.

Although there are some similarities with a digital twin, there are key distinctions. The addition of real-time sensors and big data, combined with the power of physics-based simulation (a powerful combination offered by our own ICL digital twin technology) means that a digital twin has further reaching applications than a typical BIM model. A digital twin not only looks like the building, it behaves like the real building, responding to operational conditions and building occupancy to produce an invaluable operational asset. It is the addition of physic-based simulation that makes this possible, as well as offering the ability to fill data gaps, make predictions on completely unforeseen scenarios and continuously optimise operational performance. In this sense, a digital twin is much more focused upon building performance than a typical BIM model.

What’s more, the scope for digital twins goes beyond individual buildings. Where BIM typically focuses on a single building, a digital twin can encompass multiple interconnected buildings or communities to simulate how things will look and interact in a huge range of different scenarios. This can allow stakeholders across the built environment to better manage assets and services, track their real-time efficiency, maximise utilisation, minimise energy use and more to revolutionise how we design, build and operate, not only at the individual building level, but across the entire built environment.

The above is an adaptation of an article previously written by Valeria Ferrando, IES Associate Director – ICL Consultancy, for Modern Building Services Magazine. To read the original article in full, visit: https://modbs.co.uk/news/fullstory.php/aid/18827/Seeing_double_.html

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