Over the last few years, terms like building management system (BMS), controls, sensors, IoT, predictive maintenance, and even artificial intelligence have been discussed in regard to the commercial building market. Now there is a new term making its way into the arena: digital twin. Much like the genetic copy of a human’s identical twin, a digital twin is an exact copy of an object or a building without the ethical snafus of cloning. In the white paper “Applying Digital Twins to the Built Environment” from Johnson Controls, a digital twin is defined as a connected, virtual replica of a physical product, asset, or system. In essence, it turns the physical world into a computable object.
“Digital twinning is the creation of a digital representation of the physical world, using models and data from sensors,” said Trent Swanson, vice president of architecture and platform for Johnson Controls. “Digital twins can improve the speed and accuracy in the troubleshooting of HVAC equipment. It can also be used to enable predictive maintenance, performance optimizations, and run simulations.”
A Little Deeper
Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES) commissioned a different white paper in the fourth quarter of 2019, titled “Creating Zero Carbon Communities: The Role of Digital Twins.” The 40-page document, created by Navigant Research, took a deep dive explaining what technologies had been combined to give rise to digital twinning, along with exploring the concept’s hierarchy and applications.
BUILT NETWORK: From blueprints to the AI information processed today, the birth of the digital twin is on the verge of changing not only how buildings are constructed and maintained, but also how they are utilized and networked to be a part of zero carbon cities.
According to the report, digital twins aren’t based on a single technology but are the culminating application of several technologies including data management, analytics, simulation, visualization, and information sharing. From blueprints to the AI information processed today, the birth of the digital twin is on the verge of changing not only how buildings are constructed and maintained, but also how they are utilized and networked to be a part of zero-carbon cities.
“Machine learning and advanced analytics combined with an understanding of real world conditions — such as energy flows, environmental conditions, and material attributes — means digital twins can provide new insights into the behavior of assets and infrastructure under current and future conditions,” stated the report. “The ability to visualize this data in 2-D and 3-D models and over time makes the information accessible to many levels of users.”
The study further explained four key trends that allowed for the evolution of digital twinning in the built environment. They are the proliferation of sensor technologies, machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities, dynamic simulation modeling tools, and visualization tools that improve the ability of decision-makers to work with sophisticated datasets and advanced analytics.
With a basic understanding of the overall concept, contractors can begin to engage what the white paper called the hierarchy of a digital twin.
“In the context of digital twins, hierarchy represents the level at which digital representation of specific assets are integrated,” stated the study. “At the lowest level of the hierarchy are twins of single assets. Multiple-asset twins combine to create more complex hierarchies.”
PIECES OF THE PUZZLE: A single-asset twin is the digital twin of an object within a structure. For example, it can be an HVAC unit, boiler, or anything that is complex enough to warrant usable information from sensors.
A single-asset twin is the digital twin of an object within a structure. For example, it can be an HVAC unit, boiler, or anything that is complex enough to warrant usable information from sensors. Combining all of the single assets in a structure creates a building twin.
A community-wide twin brings together a portfolio of buildings and other models. A city-wide twin is a combination of multiple community-wide twins and the infrastructure needed to run the city.
“The digital twin revolution is forging ahead in the built environment and will likely appear as a specification in request for proposals very soon,” said Chris Flood, vice president of IES Canada. “So many of our customers are preparing for that addition.”
The benefits of a digital twin vary based on the applications that are being used. Johnson Controls defines six specific applications for digital twins in the built environment: prediction, operations, cost reduction, risk mitigation, understanding system interactions, and security.
“The Johnson Controls platform and capabilities provide the foundation for a complete cloud to edge twinning solution,” said Swanson. “Johnson Controls also has professional services for twinning enablement, drawing on decades of experiences creating intelligent buildings.”
No technology comes without concerns, and digital twinning is not an exception. Contractors and building managers working with digital twin technology must be aware of cybersecurity and tech overkill. There is a point where digital twinning doesn’t make sense for some applications. There is also concern regarding a lack of data standards. As with building information management (BIM), if a standard for the terms and technology is not used, integration and analytics can become cumbersome, if not impossible. Add to that the need for keeping the digital twin up to date. This concern goes straight back to the adage, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Despite these concerns, Swanson believes that digital twinning will only continue to advance.
“Over the next few years, digital twinning paired with artificial intelligence will bring life to buildings, giving buildings a voice to share their state and ask for help,” he said. “Digital twinning will provide a current and historical view into a building as well as future states.”
With a general understanding of digital twinning, commercial HVAC contractors should be able to get started working towards this future-facing technology. To do that, Swanson suggests that commercial HVAC contractors need to get HVACR systems connected with data flowing to the edge and to the cloud. He noted that they should ensure that the systems can be managed and updated.
“Get all things connected,” he said. “Connected equipment that can be managed and updated remotely should be the standard today. Digital twinning provides commercial contractors with a digital interface to physical environments, which can be used to enable a digitally augmented experience of the physical environment or a remote view into the environment.”