The growing power of data – Paul Wilkinson

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The growing power of data – Paul Wilkinson

The start of a new year is often when we look forward and try to forecast new or continuing trends. So far as construction technology is concerned, it will largely be more of the same – more mobile applications, more visualisation tools, more BIM, more data, and more about ‘digital twins’.

Digital adoption in mainstream construction has been catalysed by gradual adoption of Building Information Modelling, BIM. This is not a technological change as such – it is a process that is facilitated or supported by digital technologies – and as it involves people adopting new, more collaborative ways of working, BIM is more of a cultural revolution than a digital one.

BIM-based approaches enable a more connected process through which assets are conceived, planned, designed, fabricated, assembled, commissioned and then operated and maintained using rich model-based data. While design and construction information may be captured in models, a wealth of process-related information also needs to be recorded and managed. From initial terms of appointment and contracts, through the management of 100s of processes (design variations, requests for information, etc), masses of additional data (documents, spreadsheets, forms, photographs, etc) is also accumulated.

Often, this data must be managed in a collaborative platform, a ‘common data environment’ supporting information needs across a project team. Some of this information may also have value for the owner-operator, so computer-aided facility / asset management software will increasingly need to able to import and reuse data created during the BIM-enabled process.

Moving towards the dynamic digital twin

At the project level, drawing deliverables (plans, elevations, sections, details) may now be a BIM by-product; site-based processes increasingly involve mobile devices; and millimetre-accurate site imagery is enhancing visualisation – all increasing project team, client and end-user engagement throughout design and construction.

Construction professionals, as a result, are exchanging substantial volumes of data. Federated BIMs, reality-captured cityscapes or immersive environments may be measured in 100s, even 1000s of megabytes – well beyond the capabilities of email, FTP or cloud-based file-sharing. Increasingly, therefore, 21st century collaboration is about sharing information in the cloud and accessing and interacting with data via web browsers and viewing applications.

Moreover, information is increasingly dynamic, streamed in real-time. Consumer-grade devices and home technology gadgetry provide new ways to manage our built environments – controlling home appliances via smartphones, using smart meters to monitor water or energy use, or viewing real-time weather or transportation data from remote sensors, for example.

As a result, some industry professionals are not just defining data about built assets, but also talking about data created by built assets, and by people’s interactions with those smart assets. The ‘Industrial Internet of Things’ is growing rapidly, driving digital transformation across several industries. This is particularly affecting manufacturing – though let’s not forget the push for greater offsite fabrication – but wearables, sensors, radio frequency ID (RFID) tags and smart beacons are also making their mark on construction sites, and in the operation and maintenance of built assets.

Asset owner-operators will be responsible for operating and maintaining both the physical asset and its connected ‘digital twin’: a realistic digital representation of assets, processes or systems in the built environment. Built assets will no longer be treated in isolation: our digital future could see entire national infrastructure ecosystems managed digitally. UK government and industry bodies are already talking about a National Digital Twin, and have created a set of guidelines – the ‘Gemini Principles’ – to ensure the supporting information management framework is created to balance needs for security, quality, openness and the public good, among other factors.

By keeping abreast of trends such as digital twins, the successful businesses of tomorrow will be the ones who regard connected digital working as the new normal, and who realise real-time built asset data anytime, anywhere, on any device will be mission-critical.