By Richard Leslie and Donna Huey

We are deploying digital twins – a digital representation of a real-world entity or system – in a growing number of industries to improve products, processes, and performance, the benefits of which include increased efficiency and reduced costs. In fact, the global market for digital twins is expected to grow by more than a third (38 percent) annually to reach $16 billion by 2023, according to MarketsandMarkets. Companies in asset-heavy sectors such as oil and gas, aerospace, automotive and industrial products are increasingly leveraging digital twin technology to transform production, and it is also now being piloted in the retail, healthcare, and smart city fields. 

However, in terms of real-world applications, the more traditional infrastructure industry is only just scratching the surface of what we can do with this technology. It may feel like stepping into the unknown for many, but companies are making digital twins work for them in powerful ways. By learning from these various applications, businesses across the infrastructure sector can gain a competitive edge and start to roll out projects more effectively. 

Here are just some of the ways that digital twins are currently being employed: 

1. Improving safety 

There are a lot of mission critical tasks that operatives in the oil and gas industry must learn before they can work on a rig. Comprehensive training is therefore required to give people a thorough understanding of all the necessary procedures before they set foot on a newly built rig, or one they haven’t worked on before. The same is true for many areas of our infrastructure, such as metros and airports where passenger movement and safety is always in constant balance with operations and maintenance workers and their daily activities.

Use of digital twins is helping these workers carry out their safety inductions virtually. This can include everything from how to handle day-to-day operations to managing emergency situations. For example, if there’s a fire, what steps would someone need to take to put it out? Carrying out simulated training in this way removes risk, by only putting staff in potentially dangerous situations once they are fully ready to deal with them. There are also cost-saving benefits because companies don’t need to prepare physical training scenarios. Instead, people are trained quickly, conveniently, and safely in the virtual environment. Training sessions can even be expanded to include scenarios that would be difficult, expensive, or impossible to replicate physically. 

For complex systems like railroads and metros, rehearsal and preplanning of maintenance tasks can also be supported through use of a digital twin to optimize the time needed onsite during the critical non-revenue period. Virtual rehearsal ensures proper processes, planning, and safety precautions have been prepared, and the necessary tools and equipment are assured for accessibility and correct function, before physically being deployed on site.

2. Maintenance Efficiency

Imagine an engineer set out to perform critical repairs on a railway has been briefed about a problem with the track that needs resolving. But, when they arrive, the problem turns out to be very different to the one they were expecting. And, even worse, it requires specialist knowledge or expertise they just don’t have. Under typical circumstances, the engineer would have to postpone the repair, rescheduling to accommodate additional briefings or even bringing additional experts to the jobsite. This means two site visits instead of one and extended outage time on the line. 

Now imagine that same situation with the benefit of a digital twin. No matter the issue, the right person would then be able to see a digital representation of the railway, talk the engineer through the problem, and help them to solve it. Furthermore, by using a mixed reality headset such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, specialists can mark up the specific parts of the equipment to pay close attention to – all in real-time. No repeat visits, no deferring to dusty user manuals, and the right person for the job without physically needing to be there.

SNC-Lavalin is using this technology in industries from nuclear to civil infrastructure and construction, to vehicle maintenance activities on a rail system. And we are only just scratching the surface of possible use cases. A key advantage of this digitization of processes is the improved learning and knowledge transfer process and the reduced time to get workers trained on performing new tasks.    

3. Data-rich decision-making

At the core of the digital twin concept is the opportunity to connect an organization’s data together, mine it for insights, and then use it to inform decision-making. Most organizations already have a lot of data stored, but often the data is siloed and disconnected, making it harder to use and analyze. Connecting data sets provides a means to powerful insights. When we have better insights, we can ask better questions and  make better decisions. 

This has been well demonstrated in the technology space where, for market leaders, this process is fundamental to their business model. Look at Facebook and Google. These organizations have brought huge volumes of data together – particularly user data – and interpret them in meaningful ways.

We are seeing the benefits come to life in infrastructure as well.  For example, in a pilot program currently underway, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (NYMTA) is testing the ability to aggregate track condition data across various operating entities and then tying the data to spatial location. By looking across the agency in one common operating picture, NYMTA can analyze heat maps to improve prioritization of maintenance and capital programs. This virtual representation of the physical assets is pointing to potential efficiencies in combining and consolidating work activities, something that was previously impossible. The ability to combine maintenance activities could enable reduced outage times and optimization of critical resources.

What can we learn?

At SNC Lavalin’s Trillium Line South Extension rail project in Canada, we have been using digital twin technology to create a virtual replica of the railway stations in Ottawa. This replica has enabled us to design in 3D with spatial awareness. We are also using data and simulation capabilities to model everything from people to train and car movements in the surrounding area. These simulations  inform the design of the facilities using real insights. The technological advancements allow us to make key design decisions much earlier in the process to ensure a facility is fit for purpose and can withstand everything the daily commute will throw at it. We are now exploring how to incorporate artificial intelligence into the design process to improve our understanding of how the systems will behave and allow us to leverage prediction in our design process. 

Sharing best practice and knowledge when it comes to digital twins not only helps adjacent industries to learn more about the technology and its applications but jump-starts cross-sector collaboration that is so critical to innovation. 

Looking outwards at how businesses are already employing digital twin technology will help us all to take inspiration back to our own industries. The best insights often come from unlikely places. The bottom line is that digital twins are revolutionizing the way an organization designs, plans, builds and maintains. An appreciation of their value and a willingness to look at the big picture will ensure companies capitalize on the full spectrum of opportunities digital twins can bring. 


Richard Leslie is Director, Strategic Services – Rail & Transit Engineering, SNC-Lavalin, Canada and Donna Huey, Director of Client Technology, SNC-Lavalin, US

Donna Huey is Director of Client Technology, SNC-Lavalin, US

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