Delving into digital doppelgangers

By on 21 September, 2021

Image © iStockphoto/ko_orn

We speak with three industry experts to get a view into the past, present and future of digital twins.

By Jonathan Nally

Digital twins are now being widely used in both the private and public sectors for everything from designing ships, cars and aircraft to planning cities, from training AI systems to building virtual models of human bodies for better-targetted healthcare. They promise easier design of complex systems and deeper insights into the workings of real-world objects and structures. So it’s no wonder, then, that they are being investigated or employed by pretty much every industry segment.

But just how advanced are digital twins, what are they best suited for and who is currently using them? To find out, we consulted several industry professionals to get their views: Brian Middleton, Vice President, Global Business Development with Bentley Systems; Gordon Sumerling, Digital Twin specialist, Solution Engineering with Esri Australia; and Hong Tran, Chief Technology Officer with ScanX.

POS: What is the current state of play with digital twins?

GORDON SUMERLING: Digital twins are expanding through Australia’s state and federal government space. In urban renewal projects such as Fisherman’s Bend in Victoria, digital twins are becoming increasingly important. We are also seeing local government starting to use BIM in 3D scenes to provide shadow and development assessment for proposed constructions.

HONG TRAN: The need to adapt to COVID-19 has enabled users to access any site remotely from their head office. So accessibility to digital twins is the easy part. However, the hard part still exists in the form of the question: How do we add value to these digital twins? In 2021, at ScanX we have been focusing on automation to classify ground, buildings, vegetation, and infrastructure such as powerlines.

BRIAN MIDDLETON: Digital twin is a buzzword and there is a lot of marketing spin just like we saw with BIM. Some industries are more advanced, such as process plant and manufacturing, whilst others like construction, utilities and cities are earlier on the journey. The good thing is that there is much to be learned from the earlier adopters. In the next year or so, Bentley expects to see much better informed buyers as they understand that the static digital representations that are provided in current siloed systems such as CAD, GIS, BIM, asset management etc, are not going to deliver the promised benefits of a continually synchronised digital twin.

POS: Which developments will take digital twins to the next level?

GS: The next big development lies in the ability to stream the 3D models over the internet. Beyond viewing, the ability to enquire, analyse and edit data in 3D across the web is making the digital twin more accessible for all.

HT: Advancing data interoperability and deep learning. Developing machine learning to solve complex scenarios in data can get messy and clustered. Thus, we have developed solutions to efficiently clean and optimise datasets for digital twin platforms.

POS: Do you think governments are on the right track with digital twins?

GS: Yes, the concept of 4D cadastre is fast becoming the buzz. Not only viewing data in 3D but being able to see how it changes over time. The ICSM recently called for tenders to develop a 4D cadastre interchange model.

BM: Personally, I haven’t seen many government digital twin strategies that go beyond one or two data sources — and these are often GIS- or BIM-focused. It’s great that these conversations are starting but the reality is that GIS, BIM, LiDAR and photogrammetry are not digital twins. While these can all contribute to a digital twin, it’s important to that there’s an understanding that we can easily end up with a spaghetti of systems and interfaces if the data isn’t synchronised over time.

POS: It would seem that open standards and open data will be needed. Do you agree?

GS: Yes, standards are key for data exchange and digital twins. There is also a lot of work being done by OGC in this space to make 3D data interoperable.

HT: At ScanX, we believe government agencies need to remove paywalls and move their policies towards open access for all. As a software company, we spend a significant budget on R&D, so an open access policy will enable a bigger shift to solving the real problems on the ground.

BM: It is my firm belief that in a few years, every business will run on a digital twin and that openness will be critical to the value of data and digital twins in the long term. However, the only way to achieve this is through an industry-wide transformation that focuses around solutions that are collaborative and open. This is a consideration which Bentley understands, and as such, we have opened up our source code, which is available on GitHub. If the digital twin is to be the ‘central nervous system’ of a business, it makes no sense to be locked down to a certain vendor or format.

POS: Do your clients really understand the concept of digital twins?

HT: Yes and no. Our users understand digital twins but they have a limited grasp of its power and benefits. ScanX has processed terabytes of scanning data and we believe in the great value of the twins that we generate. Data needs to be processed in a way that is solving a solution, not just producing a pretty 3D model.

GS: Digital twinning is still in its infancy. It is a description that is used widely without a full understanding of what it actually means. When most clients talk digital twins, they are referring to 3D representation. Today most implementations are visualisations. The future is full 3D GIS where editing, design and analysis is occurring in the 3D space — it’s not just an afterthought for development of design ideas.

BM: This is a hard one. I think most organisations have a concept of what a digital twin is at a departmental level but are struggling to get their heads around how to apply that at an organisational level. At its core, digital twinning is essentially Master Data Management where you need to synchronise data across information technology, operational technology as well as engineering technology. If you don’t have a synchronised digital twin, you essentially end up with a digital snapshot which immediately becomes less valuable over time.

POS: Is there anything that could hold digital twins back?

GS: Digital twins are about combining many different data types together, with interoperability between these data types and the ability to view them all in the same location, then streaming them to the end user. Making the integration simple through effective web services is required for the future.

BM: There needs to a broad willingness from people to change how they work today; information sharing and collaboration outside of their direct data silo will be critical for a true digital twin. This is particular challenging for business leaders driving change and will require clear communication and demonstration of value. Bentley believes that a low-risk, phased and modular approach will be key in helping organisations start this journey.

Established and legacy processes which have not kept up with technological advancement are other potential barriers. Just a cursory glance at the number of organisations today that still do not accept electronic signatures is a great example as to how this can be a hindrance.

Then there’s the notion of propriety technology as part of digital twins. Locking data in formats or systems which are not easily shared or integrated will only serve to delay and inhibit the realisation of benefits from digital twins.

This article was first published in Issue 114 (Aug/Sep 2021) of Position magazine.

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