Digital Twin

BIM’s Building Boom 

“Digital twins”—digital copies of technical facilities—have been standard in many industries for some time. Now this technology has also reached the construction industry. The pledge: to make complex building and infrastructure projects easier to plan and cheaper to operate.

Text Tino Scholz

In the end, it was just a random coincidence that sparked the surge of interest in the innovation. Phil Bernstein was sitting in a plane, as he so often did, and started a conversation with the person sitting next to him: the lead architect for the Freedom Tower—the skyscraper that since 2014 has stood on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York City—which was under construction at the time. Bernstein worked for the American software corporation Autodesk, which specializes in digital 2D and 3D design, including for building construction. So the two spoke about the challenges that concerned the architect, and eventually landed on the topic of underground construction, a very complex task fraught with many uncertainties and highly prone to error—but Bernstein had an answer. He suggested to his seatmate that he use a digital methodology that we know today as building information modeling, or BIM.

Photo: Getty Images/ansonmiao

The Digital transformation within construction first spread throughout the USA.

Autodesk and the architects of the Freedom Tower subsequently worked very successfully together. The Wall Street Journal even published an article about it. “Honestly, nearly every partner of ours from the architectural field came to us, the article in hand, and asked: ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’” Bernstein recalls. And this was how the digital transformation in building construction began to spread, at first primarily in the United States. “The Freedom Tower,” Bernstein says with confidence, “was the breakthrough for BIM in our entire industry.”

In hindsight, to speak of a breakthrough is perhaps a bit exaggerated. But today, twelve years after that coincidental meeting on the plane, even if digital twins may not be ubiquitous in the construction industry, there is definitely evidence of a small boom. According to a study by the strategy consulting firm Roland Berger, the market for BIM applications is expected to quadruple—from $2.7 billion USD in 2014 to about $11.5 billion by 2022. And the study warns that construction companies that don’t utilize this technology will be at a disadvantage: “BIM is increasingly becoming the standard for the building industry. Without access to this system, companies will be driven out of the market over the medium term because coordination processes with them will be more time and cost intensive.”

Studies show that planners who don’t rely on BIM could be pushed out of the market.

Building information modeling describes the increasing digitization in the construction industry. However BIM, the digital twin of the object to be built, is much more than just a digital 2D or 3D model. A true BIM model is made up of the virtual equivalents of the actual sections of the building as well as the parts required to build them. All the elements have all the characteristics—both physical and logical—of their real counterparts. These smart elements are the digital prototypes of the building’s physical elements, such as walls, supports, windows, doors, stairs, etc. And these digital prototypes make it possible to simulate the building and its behavior and also to understand it, to test it and to optimize it even before the building actually gets built.  

This virtual preplanning allows potential mistakes to be spotted long before the first the first ground is broken. All of the construction partners have access to the models and data, which are continually augmented and further updated over the project’s entire duration. And this data is extremely useful for later renovations and refurbishments. Unlike blueprints, which are just filed away, the data for the digital twin is continually updated. 

The digital twin isn’t something completely new, of course. In aerospace, in machine engineering and automobile manufacturing and in electrotechnology, 3D-based planning has been around for a long time, particularly for virtual prototypes. As Norbert Rupp, director of TÜV SÜD’s Building Advisory Services business unit explains: “Using this process for mass production is more obvious. If I’m producing a million parts, it’s better to be very meticulous beforehand. Building contractors are increasingly realizing that they have these possibilities as well—and that the topic is becoming more and more important.”

Rupp knows this field inside and out—supporting building contractors in building management is one of TÜV SÜD’s well-established services. “Now we’re extending this into the BIM future and offering added digital value for our customers in this arena,” Rupp explains. “It’s a mixture of how BIM works and how building contractors can use it to reap its benefits. We supervise and provide advice along the entire building cycle. We’re well aware that BIM is something new, but it’s also a good thing. And we help ensure that this innovation provides real additional value.”

It is above all the transformation to smart, digital cities—with their networked infrastructure and buildings—that has made these changes necessary. “In construction it is more about creating an intrinsically functioning system,” says Virtual Environments Team Leader Günter Wenzel at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering. He researches and develops the benefits of BIM software. “In the construction industry, buildings and infrastructure are becoming more and more networked with each other. Energy management and mobility are just two aspects of this. Nowadays it’s no longer possible to consider a building as a singular entity; it requires a digital model.”

Photo: unsplash/Colton Duke

The freedom tower in New York City was worldwide one of the first noted construction sites incorporating BIM technology

This is demonstrated by several global examples, such as the Shanghai Tower, which is more than 600 meters tall and was completed in 2014. Thanks to the use of a digital twin, not only was this mega-project completed on time, there were also large savings in both materials and working hours—32 percent for the material costs. Crossrail, in turn, a transport project adding around 118 kilometers of railway tracks through the greater London area, is running according to plan thanks to BIM.

The chemical company BASF is also relying on BIM—and the expertise of TÜV SÜD—to build a clean room in a new laboratory building. “This clean room serves as a reference model for BASF on the effectiveness of BIM,” Rupp says. “We’re helping them with the fundamentals in particular. We’ve developed standards that all participants must adhere to. Right now we’re getting the first digital results that we’re examining.” For a meat processing plant for Rewe, a German supermarket chain, TÜV SÜD is working on the building’s thermal simulation. “With the digital twin, we can simulate cycles within the plant,” Rupp explains. “For meat processing it’s about optimal temperature controls in all areas of the building. Therefore we’re answering the question of how the cooling systems can function safely and reliably.”

Some contractors still feel that they’d be taking a risk — yet the opposite is true.

BIM has conquered the world, albeit not comprehensively. Scandinavia is considered one of the early adopters in using building information modeling. The magazine NBS International BIM Report notes that digital twins are being used in four of five public construction projects in Denmark. Canada, Great Britain and Japan follow in the rankings. And Germany? “Progress is being made,” Wenzel says. “Germany isn’t lagging nearly as far behind as everyone claims.” 

Right now Germany is trying to catch up on what it missed in the early phase of BIM adoption. The Federal Republic has put together a three-step plan to follow in the footsteps of BIM pioneers such as Great Britain and Scandinavia. The goal of the phased plan is that BIM will regularly be used for planning and realizing major infrastructure projects of the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure by the year 2020.

By the target date of 2020, a number of pilot projects will help to gather experience with the practical application of BIM. One project is the Rastatt Tunnel, a high-speed railway tunnel more than 4 kilometers long that is being built completely underneath Rastatt, a town in Baden-Württemberg near the French border. Another is the Auenbachtal Bridge for Federal Highway 107 in Saxony, where BIM is helping to ensure optimal coordination among the individual technical planners.

That BIM’s use in Germany hasn’t yet moved beyond such pilot projects is also related to the still-prevailing fears many building contractors have. Some of them continue to feel that using a digital twin represents an unknown risk. Yet the opposite is true: BIM ensures that contractors achieve greater cost certainties and minimize risks. “The rather conservative construction industry, which has worked according to fixed patterns for decades, must now reorganize itself to a large extent,” Rupp says. “That they’re somewhat hesitant to do so is completely understandable. It’s not as if participating companies can purchase a standard software package they’re familiar with and immediately understand how it all works. But that’s where a company like TÜV SÜD can provide efficient support.”

Photo: unsplash/Colton Duke

Certain builders feel that they are at risk - yet the opposite is the case.

Rupp is fairly certain that such expertise will be in demand in the future, much more than is currently the case. “We are already noticing an increase in inquiries,” Rupp says, “but we also see it at industry gatherings.” In late March he was in Cannes at the MiPIM, Europe’s largest international property trade show, with around 20,000 attendees. Investors, builders, architects, planners—they were all there. And everyone was talking about BIM. “That was really noticeable and shows the direction things are going,” Rupp says. “The overall tenor was: companies that don’t start immediately dealing with the topic will find themselves left behind in five years.”

Read more about BIM here.