Impact of digital twins on Middle East construction

29 November 2021
An exclusive report from MEED in partnership with Autodesk reveals the role of advanced digital and data technologies in innovating project delivery

The Middle East construction sector has been painfully slow to evolve and adapt its processes to take advantage of an ever-growing range of digital technologies.

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This is changing. With its potential to deliver significant savings in project delivery time, materials and costs, building information modelling (BIM) – three-dimensional digital representations of a project that can be accessed and updated by multiple stakeholders – has gained widespread acceptance in the industry.

But the digitalisation journey does not end with project delivery. Data collected from the integrated workflows and information sharing on BIM models used during the design and construction process can be layered with real-time operational data to create a ‘digital twin’ of the development.

“A digital twin not only looks like the asset, it also behaves like the real asset,” says Anas Bataw, director of the Centre of Excellence in Smart Construction (CESC) at Herriot Watt University – Dubai.

“Digital twins can provide current information on a building’s performance, its subsystems and how it is being affected by occupant behaviour.”

A two-way connection between the digital and physical asset is enabled by sensors, while advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the internet of things (IoT) give digital twins the capacity to learn, update and communicate with their physical counterparts by exchanging data throughout the asset’s lifecycle.

“Digital twins can also fill data gaps and make predictions on unanticipated scenarios while continuously optimising the operational performance,” says Bataw. “In essence, a digital twin is much more focused upon assets performance than a traditional BIM model.”

The potential for digital twins to enhance asset management is being recognised in the hospitality sector. Used effectively, digital twins promise to not only allow project owners and operators to ensure that their assets are running efficiently and safely, but they also ensure that users, such as guests in a hotel, workers in an office or residents in a residential development, have a smooth and seamless experience.

Digital twins will address a number of issues the construction industry faces, including timeliness, high labour involvement and sustainability
Anas Bataw, Centre of Excellence in Smart Construction at Herriot Watt University – Dubai

Integrated ecosystem

Leading developers in the region, such as Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Development Company, have BIM in place and are starting to use sensors to capture real-time data from their developments.

The introduction of sensors allows owners to pull real-time information from their operations to inform future designs. The data captured by the sensors allows facility owners to measure user experience, and to understand where the user finds value. This data can then be used to help with future developments.

For a single asset, digital twins could, for example, be used to monitor temperature and air quality within a building, schedule maintenance, track the flow of people to identify potential bottlenecks and enable social distancing. They can also model emergency scenarios such as fires or floods to optimise the emergency response.

Ageing infrastructure and outdated technology are two key challenges for the water industry. Further, loss of generational knowledge and experience potentially leaves an information gap for the next generation of water experts.

The digital twins of pipes and sewer networks act as virtual computer models of the real world. They allow network managers to monitor water and wastewater networks in real-time and help them predict problems and avoid service failures.

Digital twin tools not only allow water experts to tackle the problems of water systems, but also help overcome the barriers of digital transformation.

Similarly, a digital twin of a rail network connected to other transport systems can share information about accidents, breakdowns or events that could lead to a build-up of traffic. The enhanced modelling capability would mean that potential problems could be effectively managed or even avoided altogether.

But digital twins are not limited to single developments. The same model can incorporate waste, water, transport or energy digital twins to integrate every aspect of the built environment. By integrating multiple digital twins, a connected ecosystem or ‘smart city’ can be developed.

India’s $6.5bn smart city project Amaravati, in Andhra Pradesh, integrates more than 1,000 data sets that manage the permitting process, monitor construction progress and evaluate design plans for success in the city’s extreme climate.

Similar digital twin technology is also being used in other cities, including Glasgow, Boston and Jaipur.

Regional appetite

Despite the potential benefits to the construction sector, digital twin technology has been slow to take off in the region.

“Digital twins will address a number of issues the construction industry faces, including timeliness, high labour involvement and sustainability,” says Bataw. “However, adoption of new technologies can be viewed as a threat to the traditional, proven way of working.”

The CESC director explains that the industry has continued to use manual processes and conventional methods despite construction being a high growth sector. “The willingness to accept and adopt is a barrier before any technology is fully embraced.”

The increased use of advanced data technology also requires an increase in focus and investment in cybersecurity, especially where critical national assets are involved, such as oil refineries, power plants or railways.

“Digital twins rely massively on data-sharing, which can create issues if not sensitively handled at contract stages,” says Bataw.

Despite the barriers, digital twins will prove beneficial to the industry and will create a far more sustainable sector in the future. And more widespread adoption of the technology is likely to happen soon.

“With the key technological advancements across the construction sector in the Middle East, we are not far off from embracing the digital twins concept in the region,” says Bataw.

The UAE government has long been at the forefront of digitalisation and, specifically in the construction sector, the country has taken considerable strides in transforming it.

“The UAE municipalities have been leading efforts to drive digitisation initiatives such as BIM-to-GIS (geographic information systems) integration, digitisation of assets, e-submission platforms, automated checking systems and standardisation of construction data,” says Bataw.

Additionally, the UAE Ministry of Energy & Infrastructure is developing the national smart construction guidelines to employ innovative technologies to help develop basic drivers of flexible policies, elements and targets that stimulate the development of the construction sector.

“All undertaken in a way that meets the aspirations of the UAE government and its leadership supporting the transit of the country to the next 50 years, and enhancing its global leadership by creating an incubating environment for innovation and advanced technologies.”

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