Nick Cowley, managing director of Euramax, explores how digital twin technology could benefit the modular construction industry
In 1991, David Gelernter published his book, Mirror Worlds, which sought to explore the technology of the future. “You will look into a computer screen and see reality,” he wrote. His prediction wasn’t far off and, just over a decade later, the digital twin was born. Since then, the technology has seen success in manufacturing and healthcare. With such varied applications already, we must explore its further uses.
A digital twin is a digital replica of a physical asset. Using sensors, a digital twin holds all data to do with the engineering, construction and operations of its physical counterpart in one place. It can also be created as a precursor to the physical asset to aid in the design process.
For the construction industry, harnessing the technology means creating a digital version of the final product, be it a house, hospital or hotel. The digital twin can then be used as a tool to lower project costs, reduce completion times and increase sustainability – all useful benefits, especially whn considering the current demands of the UK’s building sector.
The benefits of digital twinning echo those of modular construction, which is up to 20% cheaper, 50% quicker and more sustainable than traditional building methods, according to a 2019 McKinsey & Company report. By using digital twinning technology, modular projects could build upon their existing strengths and be completed in even less time, even more cost-effectively and with even more sustainable results.
Designers can use digital twinning as an alternative to traditional line drawings to enable improved communication and transparency between a modular construction project’s key players. Designers historically work with technical line drawings, which take more time to create and can lead them to become easily siloed from the rest of the project.
By using digital twin technology, designs can be digitalised and incorporated into the main project with ease. Digital twinning streamlines this process by collating all data related to the building, such as the quantities of materials required, the measurements of components and even factors such as energy efficiency, all within a 3D model. Any technical limitations, such as Building Regulations, can be integrated into the design algorithm, ensuring that designers have a full understanding of the project before they begin.
Combining the technical information with a 3D model means that the design is simpler understand than a line drawing, so any discrepancies between the design and expectation will be easier to identify. Alterations can be inputted into the digital twin and the designer can modify their existing model. This is considerably quicker than the traditional process, which often involves starting new line drawings from scratch if any changes need to be made.
Digital twinning can also improve the quality of your modular project. Since components are made offsite, modular construction requires the measurements and quantities of building components to be accurate. If the construction of a component differs even slightly from its design, the modules will not fix together correctly, which can increase project costs and cause delays.
A digital twin contains the exact measurements and quantities for each part of the building, be it a wall, roof or windows and doors. Since the digital twin is an exact replica of the future physical building, the data it collates is guaranteed to be correct. This means project managers can be confident in the precision of their brief when communicating with contractors.
Constructing individual parts offsite in exact quantities will further reduce the build’s completion time. It will also eliminate the need to order materials in excess, which is a strategy often implemented to offset any unexpected delays. By using digital twins to confirm component quantities and dimensions, your modular project will be more cost-efficient and less wasteful.
Even once construction is complete, digital twinning can help maintain the physical building. The Internet of Things (IoT) uses sensors to capture data of a building’s mechanical and electrical systems. These sensors can then be connected to the digital twin for continuous real-time monitoring of all information related to the building in one accessible place.
This data can then be used to predict part replacements, identify energy efficiency issues and act on potential security threats. If a completed modular building’s windows and doors display large amounts of heat loss, for example, this data can be fed back to the building’s manager, who may use it to consider purchasing replacement items from a reliable supplier. Not only is this useful for building managers, who will be able to carry out maintenance more effectively, it can also be used to improve future designs.
Data captured from existing buildings can show designers how the building performs and they can use this feedback to design more efficiently in the future. This is particularly useful for modular construction because the same components are continuously being made by contractors and therefore data from previous projects will be relevant to future ones.
By using data from digital twins to improve the design of future projects, modular construction could be better able to tackle to demands of the UK’s construction industry. In particular, the government’s ambitious pledge to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s could become a more attainable goal.
Digital technologies have been slow to gain traction in the construction industry. However, this does not mean they aren’t beneficial. With modular construction on the rise, technologies need to be implemented sooner rather than later to ensure the industry can keep up with demand. Gelernter’s predictions have been realised elsewhere and now it is time for modular construction to use digital twinning to develop further.
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