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Is the 'Digital Twin' the new 'Circular Win'? Yes, it is!

Author: Pablo van den Bosch, Board Member Madaster Foundation

Digital twinning—the digital registration of a physical object or entity—is used increasingly often. Technology makes it easier to do so, but does it also help us? 

Promoting circularity through digital identity

Materials and products reenter our economic system once they are no longer functional. Under a worst-case scenario, they would end up as waste, but a certain amount is recycled, and these days, more and more often, fortunately, they are being reused.

We all know the second-hand bicycle or used car. Reuse is an integrated part of the economic life cycle of our modes of transportation. Who has not, at some point in their past, quickly cleaned or repaired their car or bicycle in the hope of selling it at a higher price. To this end, having the original maintenance record is a definite plus point, as are the beautiful photographs from the manufacturer’s brochures, which people use to add to their advertisements.  

Such a maintenance record or brochure photograph certainly is not a digital twin. What does come close is the Dutch car registration system—and the national car passport of the Dutch Government Service for Road Transport. The registration of the vehicle mileage of all our vehicles, from as early as 1991, can be considered a digital twin. This registration has helped to professionalise the trade in second-hand vehicles.

Digital twins facilitate the economic system; the physical presence of materials or products is no longer a precondition for the myriad of economic activities, including those of purchases and sales. Particularly in the circular economy, such a physical presence is hindering this economic activity. 

Digital twinning applied in the construction sector

The construction sector is also digitising at a fast pace. Automation increases efficiency, decreases the margins of error and improves quality—during the processes of design, production, planning, testing, management, maintenance and sale. There are digital twins of materials, products, buildings and entire building portfolios. The Cadastre, Land Registry and Mapping Agency includes certain digital information on all buildings in the Netherlands, builders cannot work without their 3D Building Information Model, and any self-respecting building materials company has a digital selection of at least 25,000 products.    

However, despite the broad application of automation within the sector, the concept of digital twinning is still in its infancy. The number of households that have a complete digital overview of their home can still be counted on the fingers of one hand, so to speak. And large-scale investors in real estate, including insurance companies, banks and pension funds, mostly have no idea about what particular materials and products they own; they largely focus on the financial aspects of the total building and on certification labels, such as Well, Cradle to Cradle and BREEAM.

Material passport: the best-known digital twin

A passport provides an identity. The material passport, thus, provides an identity to materials and products through all the recorded characteristics of the material or product in question. Digital material passports enable a more efficient management of materials and products. In this way, we have insight into their characteristics, such as composition, origins and size, as well as the price and location within an object (e.g. building), or the type of impact they may have on human health, without requiring the physical presence of such materials and products. In addition, the registration of materials and products also prevents them from ending up as waste and becoming lost in anonymity.  

The added value for the construction sector

What you know about what you own, has a certain value. Having a digital twin, in whatever shape or form, provides various types of value to real estate as a whole, but also to the individual materials and products incorporated within that piece of real estate.  

As stated above, digital twins facilitate the economic system, because physical presence is no longer a precondition for economic trade. Reuse becomes simpler if more information is available, and digital information allows for such reuse to be planned even before the physical availability is a fact. Why would you wait to make products and materials available for reuse until the moment that you consider selling your real estate?  

Digitisation already has brought many benefits to the construction sector: smarter designs and construction, improved planning, higher quality, and smaller margins of error. The application of digital twins during the life cycle of buildings will create more and new possibilities for improvement and optimisation. For example, those of proactive maintenance and management, proposals for upgrading materials or products, preventing double inventories, and a more rapid identification of risks.    

The development perspective

Digital twinning is here to stay and will become the driving force behind developments in the construction sector. The current application of digitisation will become more intensive, per segment (i.e. design, construction, maintenance, management, transition, financing). Moreover, it will play a more important role across the various segments, or life cycles, of the real estate sector.  

Digital twinning will provide a boost to the circular economy in the construction sector. Physical barriers regarding deconstruction, reinstallation, quality testing, storage and transportation will always need to be overcome, but because of digital twins, this will become far easier to manage and plan. Depending on the specific material or product, new possibilities are created for reuse, and this provides new opportunities for producers, owners and service providers to expand their activities using circular business models.

Boosting these new applications and business models, which are being received enthusiastically, also leads to a certain risk of less-positive developments. Think of digital twins that include everything except that one piece of information that may be needed in year X; business models that make out-dated economic models more transparent and efficient, but at the same time create new, digital bogs in which users can become entangled; and the storage of enormous amounts of data without proper supervision may lead to privacy and security issues.

Digital twinning is new and is far from being fully developed. It unleashes a new ecosystem of services and suppliers, supervisors and legislation, and fields of work and patterns. Digital twinning, thus, is triggering a transition within our economic system.  

Questions?

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