Around the globe, modern governments are seeking to establish smart cities for the future. By embracing new technologies, these cities aim to create more liveable, workable and sustainable communities that positively shape the lives of their citizens.
The rise of smart infrastructure will be a key element to achieving this vision. The infrastructure of the future will combine physical assets with digital technologies through the Internet of Things(IoT) to enable capabilities such as real-time analytics, predictive maintenance and improve network management, to name a few.
The true ‘smarts’ behind smart cities and smart infrastructure, however, is an emerging concept known as the digital twin. Put simply, digital twins are virtual representations of physical assets, systems or overall networks that combine digital modelling with real-time data sensors to enable informed decision-making.
While the concept of the digital twin has been around for some time, it is now taking shape in the infrastructure sector as asset owners combine the physical and digital worlds. This kind of technology is no longer aspirational. Digital Engineering (DE) provides the techniques and solutions for building digital twins and smart infrastructure and is rapidly being adopted across infrastructure projects globally
A Digital Twin – leaping towards smart infrastructure
By ‘building our assets twice’, first as digital assets and then physical assets, DE provides powerful insights that simulate and optimise what we build and how we build it, well before ground is broken. These insights deliver cost savings across the asset lifecycle, reduce project risk and improve the safety of project personnel and the community.
Traditionally, construction projects were paper-based, often with manual processes and siloed systems. When compared to other industries such as manufacturing, construction has been a relatively late adopter of digital technologies. However, it’s now swiftly catching up.
Both locally and globally, more projects than ever are applying a variety of new technologies such as laser scanning, virtual reality, drones and parametric modelling, just to name a few. This rapid level of innovation is generating a faster, easier and more accurate approach to project delivery.
The benefits to delivery and operational efficiency have been so evident, mandates for the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) have been established in the United Kingdom, France and numerous European Union countries. Germany is close behind, making BIM mandatory for all transport projects by the end of 2020 and many other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong and Singapore, have identified BIM as a key technology to enable it to become a smart nation.
Moving big data to structured data
Despite this boom in innovation and adoption, DE project outputs have often remained siloed, with limited reuse across lifecycle stages and between projects. To move closer towards smart infrastructure, we must design the way embedded data is consistently structured, primarily to drive standardisation across the industry.
When data is consistently structured across an entire project, information becomes interoperable within a common data environment. Data can be reused and provide insights across project functions and presents the opportunity for broader automation.
The value of this project information being managed consistently also rolls up, enhancing the quality of information across the organisation, delivering unprecedented insights across the portfolio.
To unlock the potential of this data, we require closer cooperation between the worlds of information and communications technology (ICT) and traditional engineering, which comes with understandable challenges.
For the first time, these two disciplines have become co-dependent, as IT professionals develop solutions for associating 3D spatial and big data, and engineers translate the construction of physical infrastructure into digital requirements. This change of thinking is essential as we start to build more advanced digital twins of the built environment.
Furthermore, infrastructure owners must work together with industry and take a more active role in defining data requirements. This will help to foster higher levels of collaboration and promote data standardisation across asset owners and technology providers.
Client lead initiative
Over the past three years, Transport for NSW (TfNSW) has been actively leading the future direction of our sector through the delivery of the TfNSW DE Framework.
The DE Framework is supporting both client and contractors at every stage of the project lifecycle. Our framework includes technical guides, procurement and contract documents, management plan documents and a range of technology templates, supported by full project training to make the adoption of a consistent approach to DE achievable.
TfNSW is currently responsible for delivering a ‘oncein-a-generation’ program of investment with a budget of approximately $55billion allocated over four years for infrastructure development and renewal throughout New South Wales.
The DE Framework is playing a pivotal role in the success of this investment, which covers a range of projects including road, rail and precinct development. The ability to reuse and integrate data sets and models has allowed projects to navigate complex planning requirements, achieve efficiencies and cost savings through planning, while better informing contractors and communities.
The future is bright
Digital innovation within our sector is moving at a rapid pace. We’re seeing a range of new technologies emerging into the infrastructure sector such as smart contracts, virtual construction and real-time site monitoring, to name a few.
TfNSW is proud to play a crucial role in enabling innovation that will build the digital twins and smart infrastructure of the future. This is undoubtedly an exciting time to be involved in our industry, and the future Simon Vaux is bright.