Lendlease recently built a digital twin to test and determine the viability of building a multistory complex on Collins Wharf, located on the Yarra River in Melbourne from sustainable timber (exhibit). While this timber had been used previously, it had not been tested in buildings of this height—namely, a 28- and a 29-story apartment tower.
The inclusion of the project's processes and materials in the digital twin identified options and produced a more granular understanding of process and cost for developers. Although it's still early in the design process, the digital twin for the towers has already provided insight on how to actively tighten the project timeline and reduce costs.
Applying digital twins to modular construction can further help cut time and costs. For example, the Canadian technology company CadMakers successfully used digital twins to design the Brock Commons Tallwood House—an 18-story hybrid mass-timber building—at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The Tallwood House provided a model to plan out the prefabrication and construction of the building that included a simulation of on-site assembly of the manufactured parts. As a result, the 20-month project was completed in under 17 months and delivered in half the time of an equivalent building using traditional methods.
Steps to scale digital twins
Digital manufacturing is already playing a major role in ending construction's reliance on economies of scale. Robotics, 3-D printing, and digitally controlled production methods are now prevalent in fabrication. These new technologies enable each component of a project to be produced locally in small volumes, cleanly and efficiently. The scope or scale of a project, basically, is no longer its defining characteristic.
The following four steps can help scale digital twins and subsequently realize the benefits of modular construction:
Create high-fidelity prototypes. Computational or generative design can be employed instead of traditional line drawings, allowing projects to free up time and costs by circumventing historically intensive design efforts.
Replicate, simulate, and evaluate. This procedure applies to both the processes for manufacturing and assembly and also the physical characteristics of the materials used. As a result, the physical performance of a component can be understood before anything is built. The digital twin can demonstrate how various manufacturing tolerances and factors can complicate the production of complex objects—for example, how buildings' components might expand, deform, or react in the real world.
Make data accessible to all players. Volumes of easily accessible data beyond the core design can be digitally stored and shared among all stakeholders and at all stages. Therefore, designers—who have traditionally been isolated from the construction and downstream manufacturing processes—are provided a collaborative approach and understanding of the project, with technical parameters firmly embedded into the design algorithm.
Capture data from the physical product. Once the project is completed and open for business, sensors can collect data to inform future designers on how the object performs. For instance, if buildings are composites of digitally fabricated components, then iterative improvements on the design of each component can be driven from this virtuous cycle. Until now, this concept has largely been absent from the architecture, engineering, and construction industry.
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Ultimately, digital twins could help democratize design in construction. Although the technology is still in its early days—for both the industry and the design community—it could soon unlock the capacity to explore countless ideas using technology already at our fingertips. By prioritizing those ideas, mitigating risk, and providing efficiencies, the industry can adopt modular construction in ways previously not possible.