What Is a Digital Twin? 

what is a digital twin and how to create one in construction

A digital replica can breathe ‘life’ into a project, and the resulting built asset. This proposition has driven our BIM adoption and implementation journey for the past two decades. Our journey has shown us the importance of data and information management and how a model-centric way of working can improve how we design, construct, and manage a built asset.

Imagine adding real-time data that can flow between a model or a digital replica and the physical entity or process. This connected system can improve the asset’s entire life cycle from the pre-project stage to the end-of-life stage. The data “twins” the digital replica with the physical asset or process, resulting in a digital twin.

Therefore, the digital twins become a “live” repository of asset data and information. For this reason, digital twins are gaining traction in the built environment sector, even though several questions remain unanswered. For example, what is a digital twin, and why should construction professionals care about this concept? Let’s take a more detailed look.

Defining Digital Twins

As you may have already guessed, a digital twin is a digital replica of something that exists in the physical world. Or, as Robert Bray, Senior Director & General Manager for Autodesk Tandem, defined a digital twin perfectly during a recent Digital Builder podcast episode when he said, “At the end of the day, a digital twin is – if it’s healthy – a living, breathing, entity. It’s the current state of your facility and everything about it.”

You might be wondering, isn’t that the function of BIM? Not always, and not exactly!

Often, BIM is a crucial component of a digital twin, but the notion of a digital twin itself is much broader. BIM might nearly replicate the physical asset by storing updated design, engineering, and construction data, but there are some key differences. The main difference between a digital twin and BIM is that the former creates a bi-directional connection between the digital replica and the physical entity or process. This connection over the life of the project and the asset is called a “digital thread (aka golden thread).” The golden thread of information helps pass critical information from phase to phase over the asset’s life.

According to Facility Executive magazine, a digital twin is specifically designed to serve as the bridge between the physical and digital worlds through the use of sensors to collect data, in real-time, about a physical asset. The collected data assists in creating a synchronized and high fidelity digital duplicate and allows for a project team to optimize and better understand project and asset performance. Ultimately, it can lead to a better, more successful project that produces a built asset that meets its social, environmental, and economic objectives.

“At the end of the day, a digital twin is – if it’s healthy – a living, breathing, entity. It’s the current state of your facility and everything about it.”

-Robert Bray, Senior Director & General Manager for Autodesk Tandem


So, what insights can you gain from creating a digital twin? Simply put, when created, project teams and asset owners can learn more about the performance of the project and the resulting asset, thus making smarter decisions and improving predictability in delivering outcomes.

A Brief History of Digital Twins

When asked to provide my views on the growing demand for digital twins, I took the opportunity to conduct some research on where the concept originated. Digital twins aren’t a new concept in other fields, and in fact, they’ve been utilized in the manufacturing industry for decades.

It’s widely believed that the first digital twin was used in the Apollo 13 mission back in 1970—although it wasn’t referred to as a “digital twin.” If it had not been for using a digital twin (simulating what-if scenarios using the digital-physical-digital loop), that space mission could have had a different outcome. The ability to use digital twins to test solutions from the ground level using a computer is one of the most important elements of utilizing digital technology to guarantee the desired outcome.

Dr. Michael Grieves, a chief scientist of advanced manufacturing at the Florida Institute of Technology, was responsible for creating and popularizing the concept of a digital twin in the capacity it’s known today. In fact, he’s believed to have proposed the digital twin as the conceptual model underlying product lifecycle management, or PLM. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that Dr. Grieves’ concept was actually called a digital twin when NASA’s John Vickers referred to it in a report.

What Does a Digital Twin Include?

Now that we know a little bit about what it is and its history, you might be wondering what is included in a digital twin when it comes to the built environment. As noted earlier, a true digital twin records every step of the design, construction, and operation processes, so lots of data is packed into the updated digital replica. This data includes:

  • BIM and 3D models
  • 2D information
  • Schedules
  • Contracts
  • Construction documents (i.e., submittals, change orders, RFIs, etc.)
  • Operational data collected by the embedded sensors
  • Data from images, videos, and scans processed by AI and machine learning technology

Looking at the image (below) from a recent report from RICS, Digital twins from design to handover of constructed assets, you can see the foundational elements of the digital twin.

foundational elements of a digtial twin

There are three elements:

  1. Virtual representation
  2. Synchronization
  3. Real-world entities and processes

Virtual representation consists of a digital replica of the construction objects and processes. Real-world entities and processes are represented at three levels: construction objects, building or civil engineering assets, or a portfolio of assets. Synchronization is the connection between real-world entities and virtual representation defined by the fidelity and frequency of the link.

Why Are Digital Twins Used?

Creating a digital twin requires careful consideration, so it’s essential to be clear about the benefits.

“A digital twin has several use cases. It allows us to simulate and animate our physical environment’s technical and social performance based on real-time data. It enables us to analyze how our environment performs in daily operations and what are the short-term or long-term implications of that performance,” according to Salla Eckhardt, Director Transformation Services, Microsoft, in Digital twins from design to handover of constructed assets.

“A digital twin supports our design processes, construction operations, seamless handover, proactive maintenance, and predictive operations planning by visualizing multiple data streams in a single system that can be interpreted by a human or decoded by a machine.”

Listen now: Uncovering the Value of Digital Twins in Construction on our Digital Builder podcast.

Here’s a look at the top-level benefits of digital twins in the AEC industry:

  • Aid decision-making: Simulations can help project stakeholders make better decisions regarding options and changes. Using what-if simulations can better address carbon emissions, health, safety, well-being, and environmental, social, and governance strategies.
  • Reduce risk: Digital twins can help identify, predict, and analyze risk. In addition to reducing risk on a job site, digital twins can help facility managers identify potential risks for occupants and users.
  • Improve project efficiency and quality: Thanks to various data streams processed by AI and machine learning, digital twins can help project teams streamline operational efficiency and improve construction quality. Furthermore, job sites can run smoother with real-time information automation.
  • Lower costs: Digital twins can reduce life cycle costs, which can help improve the project and asset performance. Thanks to better risk mitigation and predictions, certain costs/wastes can be avoided entirely.
  • Enhance coordination: Improved coordination potential is another benefit. Digital twins can allow project teams to have a greater overall understanding of how systems interact and where there are potential conflicts. They can also improve installation sequencing and help connect the office with the field, improving day-to-day operations.
  • Provide security: Digital twins provide security of data and information, in addition to physical security with better identification of safety issues.

How Digital Twins Are Being Used Today

How are digital twins being used in construction today? According to RICS, 21.5% of construction professionals use digital twins today, and another 18.1% have started taking steps toward implementation. Unsurprisingly, most respondents (43.5%) have said that they do not know about digital twins or do not plan to use them in their future projects.

For others, the path to using digital twins may not be clear yet, or they may have decided not to use them at all despite currently using BIM. What’s holding them back? Issues such as not having the demand from clients yet or the perceived complexity of using digital twins were both reported by respondents, among other concerns.

Do they see a benefit to using digital twins, though, despite the perceived challenges?

When asked in a survey about deploying digital twins on a project, 64% of the respondents stated that they did see the benefit of developing, deploying, and using digital twins through the life of an asset. In fact, those 64% of respondents agreed that they’d deploy digital twins even when doing so wasn’t mandated if they had no roadblocks to usage.

There are multiple ways in which digital twins can be used. It’s true that digital twins are being used during the design and construction phases in varied ways by different firms and professionals.

The majority, at 54.4%, state that they use digital twins to facilitate data sharing to deliver performance efficiencies for all stakeholders. The next top use of digital twins was to gather real-time information and site data to make decisions and collaborate (53.7% of respondents).

Other ways that digital twins are being used today include:

  • Progress monitoring/project controls (41.5%)
  • Managing design and construction risks (32.7%)
  • Enhancing handover (27.2%)
  • Cost and schedule benefits including certainty (23.1%)
  • Reducing waste/improving project sustainability (22.4%)
  • Improving the quality of construction (21.1%)

Clients have their preferences for how these digital twins are delivered. In 53.1% of cases, clients wanted to see their deliverables in the form of as-built BIM models, and others preferred dashboards (48.4%). Digital twin deliverables can come in many forms, allowing clients to get the deliverables in the form that works best for them.

Challenges of Creating a Digital Twin

Despite the benefits associated with the implementation of digital twins on construction projects, like any new technology, there are some challenges to creating one. The three challenges that loom the largest are technological, monetary, cultural, and industry structure. Here’s a closer look:

  • Technological: To create a digital twin that will drive value — and not be a burden — the right technologies and systems must already be in place. Getting these systems up and running and then maintaining their performance can be an obstacle for some organizations if proper steps are not taken to ensure their success.
  • Monetary: Yes, the return on investment (ROI) from implementing a digital twin on your next project has the potential to be great. However, there comes an upfront cost with doing so — so you must spend the effort before you can save the money on a project/asset. In an industry with notoriously low margins, this can be difficult for some companies to wrap their heads around, as they’re essentially betting on a situation with limited historical data.
  • Cultural: What’s your company’s mindset, core values, and overall culture? Arguably, this is the biggest hindrance to adopting new innovative technology on a job site, even more so than the money and adopting the technology. If your company isn’t open to change and continuous improvement, new initiatives like digital twins are unlikely to gain traction. That being said, forward-thinking companies likely to stay ahead of the competition are increasingly looking to adopt innovative approaches to improve their operations.
  • Industry Structure: The construction industry is highly fragmented. A key challenge is that the investment in creating a digital twin during the design and construction phases doesn’t always directly benefit those who are tasked with creating and populating the data. Owners, therefore, must be invested in the process and commit to their teams creating a digital twin that yields the right results.

Unlocking the Success of Digital Twins

Digital twins can be a complex undertaking and may require a lot of upfront effort/investment. Hence, if you buy into the digital twin concept and make every effort to ensure its success, it’s more likely to benefit the overall project it’s being implemented on.

So how can you unlock the success of a digital twin? Here are the components that help make digital twins a success.

Visualization: BIM

Digital twins enhance BIM. Models on their own often can’t provide the same level of response that digital twins can. On this note, make sure that you’re paying close attention to the changes in real-time that your digital twin is showing. When a BIM-centric digital twin is used, the model has the same data as the physical construction site, improving constructability knowledge.

When models are used in the handover, a digital twin can provide the real-time operational response that models can’t do on their own – this is only true when paired with the Internet of Things (IoT), which brings us to our next component.

Living Data: IoT

Much like how your BIM and digital twin should complement each other, the same is true with your digital twin and IoT. IoT helps create a digital thread that connects the twin to the actual physical structure you’re building or operating. Since sensors collect data in real-time, a digital twin is constantly updating working conditions and helping project teams better understand how a built asset works. The simulation environment that a digital twin can provide can help an operations team address any issues more effectively and efficiently.

Data Structure: Common Data Environment

Are you managing a digital twin in the right system? If you want to maximize its value, you should be. A common data environment, or CDE, can assist when it comes to optimal asset management for digital twins. These systems provide the right standards and systems to avoid data silos and duplicate information, creating a single source of truth.

Connection: Connected and Integrated

A digital twin should be connected and integrated if you want to have all the appropriate data accurately and correctly recorded into the digital repository. Ensure that the correct integrations and systems permit data and information flow without barriers between various teams and project phases.

Skills and Development

You should know that people are integral to how digital twins are deployed and used in our sector. It’s necessary for those working with digital twins to learn new skills like how to create, deploy, update, and use this technology. The full benefits of digital twins won’t be realized until the people working with them are invested in and acquire the skills and competencies needed.

Analysis and Prediction: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Artificial intelligence, AI, and machine learning play a big part in tapping into the full potential of a digital twin, as each provides the power to put the data that has been collected to meaningful use. Digital twins open doors to analyze unrelated data sets to find new opportunities or risks. This can also help increase operational efficiency and help identify any threats faster and easier.

Build Your Project’s Twin

Are you looking to get started creating your digital twin? Having the right technology in place is essential. And while the initial investment in the right technology can be high, the payoff can be more than worth it in the long run.

To learn more about how a connected construction environment can provide the right tools to create digital twins for your projects and enhance your company’s operations, request a demo of Autodesk Construction Cloud™.


Matt Keen

Sr. Industry Strategist, Autodesk Construction Solutions

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