Winning With Twinning
Digital twins can make multi-site FMs more productive, more efficient and more effective.
By Matt Alderton
Never mind that they’re made of stone and steel instead of flesh and blood. To the facilities managers (FMs) who are their stewards, commercial buildings are living, breathing things. And just like other living things, they have a finite lifespan. If they’re kept in good health, that lifespan can be lengthened. If they’re not, it almost certainly will be cut short. Like physicians with their patients, it’s therefore incumbent on FMs to monitor the buildings in their care for illness, and to prescribe preventive solutions that will keep them in top form for years if not decades to come.
Technology can help. In particular, digital twins.
“A digital twin is a virtual model designed to accurately reflect a physical object,” explains tech giant IBM. “The object being studied — for example, a wind turbine — is outfitted with various sensors related to vital areas of functionality. These sensors produce data about different aspects of the physical object’s performance, such as energy output, temperature, weather conditions and more. This data is then relayed to a processing system and applied to the digital copy. Once informed with such data, the virtual model can be used to run simulations, study performance issues and generate possible improvements, all with the goal of generating valuable insights — which can then be applied back to the original physical object.”
But that’s just the beginning. If you ask Anand Mecheri, CEO of Invicara, developer of the digital twin platform Twinit.io, digital twins are so much more than virtual models. “Digital twins are not products. They’re customized solutions that address specific business problems,” Mecheri said. “You’ve heard the phrase ‘digital transformation.’ Digital transformation is essentially the process of leveraging data to drive workflows, and digital twins are a vehicle to achieve that.”
Digital twins can exist for virtually any asset in any industry. Digital twins of the built environment can be especially powerful, however — particularly in the hands of Multi-Site FMs, who can use digital twins to gather portfolio-level intelligence that improves the performance of not only individual buildings, but also the larger business of which they’re a part.
The Multi-Site FM of today isn’t just a facilities manager. Importantly, they’re also a data scientist, suggested Dr. Claire Penny, Director of Global Partnerships at Invicara.
“Facilities managers today have in their hands many different solutions to deliver their roles of looking after and maintaining buildings, and keeping them up and running,” Penny said. “They might have a building management system, for example, or an asset management system. And they may have multiple IoT systems. All of that produces data.”
The problem is, all the disparate systems and solutions on which FMs rely produce their data in silos. “One of the compelling use cases of digital twins is that they can bring all of that data together in a single place and connect them contextually,” Penny continued. “When that happens, the data complement each other and can give you deeper insights into what’s going on in your buildings.”
Those deeper insights yield numerous returns. For example, they help FMs prioritize investments. “Your budget in facilities management will never be enough to do all the things you need to. So, you need to be able to decide where you should focus your efforts to get the biggest bang for your buck,” explained Penny, who said the building intelligence culled from digital twins can also help Multi-Site FMs reduce operating and capital expenditures. Capital improvement projects can be prioritized by evaluating many dimensions, such as comfort, energy, space utilization, maintenance history and others. If you can predict or even identify performance issues on boilers or HVAC systems before they escalate, for example, you can proactively optimize maintenance workflows on those assets to extend their life. In turn, the business can take the money it might have devoted to replacing those assets and spend it on other capital improvements or strategic business opportunities.
“That directly translates to tenant value and satisfaction, too,” noted Mecheri, who said FMs who use digital twins to optimize maintenance, space utilization, comfort and energy use can not only mitigate risks that might disrupt operations, but also provide superior customer experience.
There are occupational benefits, too. For example, digital twins can serve as a self-service clearinghouse for asset information. Instead of asking FMs for information when they need it — for example, equipment manuals, work orders, blueprints, etc. — building engineers, sustainability professionals, real estate managers and others can access it directly via the digital twin.
“At a company we work with, the engineering manager says his life is so much easier now because everyone has access to the online twin to get the data and information they need, when they need it,” Penny explained. “He’s not spending so much time anymore answering calls and emails because all the information has been democratized.”
FMs can further save time and increase productivity by leveraging automation, according to Mecheri, who said digital twins can power automated “building health dashboards” by bringing together information from various building systems in real time, assess them against KPIs, then automatically flag anomalies so FMs can take immediate action. Scaled across an entire portfolio of buildings, the effect is that FMs can now find the proverbial needle in a haystack.
“You’re able to get rid of the noise and focus on what’s meaningful and actionable,” Penny said.
Although the technology behind digital twins is extremely complex, getting started with them is quite simple, according to Mecheri.
The most important thing to do at the outset, he suggested, is to seek executive buy-in on the concept of digital transformation more broadly. “This is essential,” he said. “If you try to convince somebody who’s not on the bus to drive digital transformation, digital twins are meaningless to them. So the starting point is building awareness about digital transformation and the benefits it can bring.”
Next, you need to define a few discrete use cases with which to get your feet wet, and hire a consultant who can help you design and implement very specific digital twin-enabled solutions that are needed to be successful. “Focus on the things you really care about,” Mecheri advised. “It may be about tracking performance in terms of up time and KPIs of your maintenance contractors, or maybe it’s about energy data, or about occupancy and air quality — whatever your objectives are as a portfolio manager.”
When it comes to choosing a platform, one of the most important considerations is composability. That is, a platform that can deliver a wide range of solutions as requirements evolve over time while marrying well with other components, now and in the future. “You may come up with ideas or needs over time, so you can’t be stuck with a tool that is packaged to deliver fixed outcomes,” Mecheri said. “You need a platform that permits your consultant to compose solutions that implement new use cases progressively over time.”
The key to everything, of course, is data. So FMs that don’t have data streams with which to fuel digital twins should start there. “Do you have any organized data about your buildings? That’s the real question,” Mecheri said. “If you have no data about your buildings, that’s where you need to start.”
And don’t forget change management, Penny added. “You have to change people’s attitudes, the way they work and the business processes they use to accommodate the digital transformation that a digital twin will deliver,” she said. “There can be a lot of resistance to change in the FM world, so that’s a big a challenge.”
The Sky’s the Limit
Digital twins are like elevators. What’s most exciting about them for Multi-Site FMs who get in on the ground floor are the upper floors to which they will eventually rise, Mecheri suggested, who said the next phase of digital twins in commercial real estate will include AI-based simulations to deliver tactical and strategic outcomes in maintenance management, capital planning, lease management, energy optimization, safety, workplace optimization and, of course, occupant comfort and healthy buildings.
“There’s a lot you’ll be able to do with AI-based simulations for capital planning and lease management — for example, how do I improve my net operating income from my property over the remaining duration of a lease period?” Mecheri explained. “The industry isn’t quite ready yet to do that at scale, but it’s coming. The concepts are there already.”