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Digital Twin: What is it, and how is it transforming civil engineering?

Digital Twin: What is it, and how is it transforming civil engineering?

Technology use in civil engineering is integral to an engineer's daily life, and continues to impact the Architecture, Engineering & Construction (A/E/C) industry. It has allowed engineers to become more agile and efficient, cut costs and, most importantly, create safer infrastructure for the future.

At Burgess & Niple (B&N), we consistently research trends and implement new technologies to better serve our clients. Specifically, Digital Twin technology is one of the latest advances in the A/E/C industry; and is already something B&N has implemented to bring additional value to clients.

What is a Digital Twin & How Are They Created?

A Digital Twin is a virtual representation of a real-world asset (e.g., a bridge or building). The technology behind creating a Digital Twin is new, but the concept of digitally replicating an object has been around since the 1960s. NASA used the concept to replicate Apollo 13 to help simulate space conditions digitally.

Digital Twins can be created using multiple methods including a 3D design model or a reality capture scan to which sensors can be attached. Each 'twin' is made differently based on what is being replicated – a bridge, pipeline or WWTP. A drone can scan and replicate a bridge (or other physical structures); a LiDAR laser can be used to scan and replicate a pipeline and strategically placed sensors throughout a WWTP to replicate the facility.

How are Digital Twins Used by Civil Engineers?

Digital Twins have positively disrupted civil engineering and help with inspections, routine maintenance and real-time monitoring. The two types of Digital Twins used most frequently by engineers are (1) a virtual, static 3D level and (2) a virtual, fully integrated level. The static level is a snapshot at a specific moment; the fully integrated level remotely monitors and controls a facility such as a wastewater treatment plant (WWTP).

Digital Twins enable engineers to keep track of all the roadways, bridges, pipelines, WWTPs, and other infrastructure assets that need regular inspection and maintenance.

How does B&N Utilize Digital Twins?

Today, B&N employs virtual, static 3D level Digital Twins for bridge inspection and WWTPs. The static level provides a snapshot highlighting the current condition of an asset at a specific moment. Engineers capture the 3D model using a drone to scan the structure, replicating the asset. B&N utilizes Revit – a building information modelling tool – in many of its designs. These Digital Twins can be used for quantity take-off and construction scheduling.

Here are two recent B&N projects where Digital Twin technology was used:

B&N applied Digital Twin technology to the Waterholes Canyon Bridge inspection in Page, Arizona. B&N created the Digital Twin via drone scanning and worked with our partner, gNext Labs, to highlight and measure surface area deficiencies. Replicating this bridge allows us to keep track of the surface-area defects, so when we visit the bridge in a few years, our engineers can compare and monitor the deficiencies.

In Columbus, Ohio, B&N replicated the Jackson Pike WWTP to provide a comprehensive view of the facility's current condition. This plant was built in 1935 and is the oldest WWTP in the city. B&N used drones to capture footage of the roof to recommend and design upgrades to extend the plant's life. 

B&N's Future – Next Level Digital Twins

To take a Digital Twin to the next level, sensors can be placed on and used to monitor and remotely control the real-world asset. This concept isn't new. In the 1970s, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) was developed to gather data in real time from remote locations in order to control equipment and conditions. However, SCADA can only record data, so issues are found after they occur. If coupled with Digital Twin technology, a WWTP could be monitored and controlled remotely (e.g., alarm system company).

A fully integrated model using Digital Twin technology will be able to replicate, inform, predict, assess and automate. The technology's ability to notify of an issue, predict a problem before it occurs, and allow a user to make changes remotely is a game changer.

With all the benefits of this model, a valid concern, especially with public facilities, is cybersecurity. Monitoring is one thing; data is only flowing out. But, with controlling the facility remotely, data flows in and out.

Although B&N has not yet implemented this technology, we have built the foundation. We are on the cutting edge and are continuing to pursue this capability.

B&N is Ready

Digital Twin technology is making enormous waves in the A/E/C industry because it provides a far superior product to the older, traditional methods. Digital Twins allow B&N to centralize data, better understand and visualize deficiencies to cut costs and make more informed decisions for our clients.

As the technology continues to evolve, B&N is ready to bring this next level service offering to our clients.

Ed Cinadr, PE, Director of Facility Inspection

Ed Cinadr, PE 
Director of Facility Inspection

Robbie Cameruca, PE, Director of Columbus Utilities Division

Robbie Cameruca, PE 
Director of Columbus Utilities Division