How Digital Twin Technology Is Central To Smart Buildings

A virtual replica of a physical environment, a digital twin helps building operators to gain new insights, optimize workflows, and monitor processes remotely.

By Franco Castaldini

Since the term “smart building” entered into our lexicon, companies have been trying to figure out the best way to fulfill the promise of IoT devices and the data they generate. Yet, overcoming the abundance of data and lack of integration between systems is no small feat. As more connected things are introduced, the tangle of data, systems, and devices is becoming ever more complex.

Enter the “digital twin”.

Acting as a virtual replica of the physical environment, a digital twin can be used in advanced ways to truly automate, optimize and connect systems — not to mention empower people — in the built environment.

In other words, digital twins are the new lifeblood of smart buildings of the future.

In this article, we look at what a digital twin is, how they’re being used in buildings today, and how they can help digitally transform your buildings to prepare for the future of twin

What Is A Digital Twin?

At its simplest, a digital twin is a virtual replica of a physical product, process, or system.

Digital twins act as a bridge between physical and digital worlds by using sensors to collect real-time data about a physical item. This data is then used to create a duplicate of the item, allowing it to be understood, manipulated, or optimized.

Other terms used to describe similar technology have included virtual prototyping, hybrid twin technology, virtual twin, and digital asset management.

The Transformation of the Digital Twin…from Things to Systems

Although digital twins have been around for several decades, it’s only been since the rapid rise of the internet of things (IoT) that they’ve become more widely considered as a tool of the future.

Digital twins are getting attention because they also integrate things like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to bring data, algorithms, and context together — enabling organizations to test new ideas, uncover problems before they happen, and monitor items remotely.

Traditionally, digital twins were used to improve the performance of a single asset, such as a wind turbine or a jet engine. In recent years, however, digital twins have become more complex, connecting not just one asset but rather systems of assets — or even entire organizations. This has been largely enabled by the expansion of IoT technology.

As digital twins become more complex — bringing together multiple assets and combining them with information about processes and people — their ability to help solve complex problems is also increasing.

The application of this can be a game-changer across built environments like office buildings, hospitals, schools, manufacturing facilities, and more.

How Digital Twins are Making Smart Buildings Even More Intelligent

Digital twins are already having a big impact at the organizational level is in commercial real estate buildings.

In particular, digital twins allow building operators to bring together previously unconnected systems — from security to HVAC to wayfinding systems — to gain new insights, optimize workflows, and monitor processes remotely.

They can also be used to give occupants more control over their own workspaces and environmental conditions, thereby enhancing the tenant experience.

By optimizing systems and connecting people, owners and operators can use digital twins to reduce costs, avoid future costs, increase occupancy rates, and improve overall asset value. In fact, at ThoughtWire, we’ve calculated that digital twins can lower operating costs in some buildings by up to 88 cents per square foot per year.

The same is true in other uses cases — say, smart hospitals. By creating a digital twin of a hospital, hospital administrators, doctors, and nurses can get powerful, real-time insight into patient health and workflows. Using sensors to monitor patients and coordinate equipment and staff, digital twins offer a better way of analyzing processes and alerting the right people at the right time when immediate action is needed.

The Components of a Successful Digital Twin

Some people have criticized the term “digital twin” as merely another buzzword. However, uptake data is showing otherwise.

In fact, trends suggest that we’re on the verge of a digital twin explosion.

We are seeing digital twin technology being used in new and mature ways, integrating sophisticated sensors, AI, and machine learning, to solve organization’s biggest challenges.

However, in order to maximize their usefulness, it’s no secret that digital twins need to be powered by high-performing databases and advancing reasoning engines. This allows digital twins to correlate large amounts of information, context and rules to create meaningful outputs that can be used by people to take action.

At ThoughtWire, we believe there are four key components of the digital twin:

  • Data (such as building systems, external data and blueprint data)
  • Reasoning (such as AI/ML models or non-linear rules)
  • KPIs (such as efficiency, emissions, net operating income and safety indicators)
  • Context (such as occupant behavior, system/device behavior and workflows)

Only when these four key components are mapped in a meaningful way, does an organization have a true digital twin.

What is the Future of the Digital Twin?

Digital twins offer new and remarkable possibilities in the built environment. Digital twins can be used to improve efficiencies, optimize processes, detect problems before they occur and innovate for the future. They can be used to create long-term value by solving big problems using a people-centric approach.

Digital twins process a lot of data and generate a lot of useful information. Through APIs, this information can be exposed to building operators. But it can also be exposed to other critical people and services — such as first responders. In this way, digital twins hold the promise of connecting smart building with other smart buildings and also with smart cities.

Digital twins are truly becoming the lifeblood of smart buildings. They are unlocking the promise of IoT and enabling the new future of work.

If your organization is interested in producing superior business outcomes and an inspiring tenant experience, digital twins are worth exploring.

Want to learn more about digital twins in action? Check out our webinar “Creating Smart Buildings for the Future of Work” at this link.

digital twinCastaldini, CMO and VP of Business Development at ThoughtWire, is a veteran marketing, business development, and product strategy executive who has led high-growth go-to-market strategies for innovative startups and large global enterprises. He joins ThoughtWire from GE Digital where he led the commercial strategy for a high-productivity application development platform. Earlier in his career, Castaldini was President of Leva Energy, a company he co-founded, which developed an innovative distributed generation system for industrial and commercial companies.