A digital twin enables teams to simulate future scenarios before, during, and after construction, resulting in improved design, constructability, and O&M
In 2009, the Panama Canal Third Set of Locks project was in early development phases. The expansion would make it possible for the canal to accommodate today’s larger ships, referred to as "Post-Panamax" ships. The Third Set of Locks project includes two massive lock facilities—one on the Atlantic Ocean side and the other on the Pacific side. Each facility has three lock chambers raising and lowering ships more than 85 feet while using less water than the existing smaller locks.
The engineers, consultants, and owners working on the project knew they were a part of one of the modern marvels of the engineering world. The $5.25 billion-dollar project would use the most advanced technology available. The team brought together a global team of experts to implement a Building Information Modeling (BIM) process. This team would ensure the design could meet the various performance requirements and operating scenarios. The process advanced the state-of-practice on many components on the project, including the state of the tools used in the process.
This BIM process was used to develop a digital twin of the Panama Canal. Throughout the design, construction, and now three years of operation, this digital twin has enabled the team to improve quality of design, increase productivity, and facilitate communication with the client, builder, and operator.
Digital twinning combines sensors, data, and visualization software to create a digital copy of a physical entity.
What is digital twinning?
Digital twinning combines sensors, data, and visualization software to create a digital copy of a physical entity. Once created, it seamlessly transmits that data across the physical and virtual world. The virtual entity then exists simultaneously with the physical entity. The user is essentially creating an avatar of a complex system or mechanism before it is built or tested in a real-world environment.
The power industry has been using similar technologies for years. In the late 1980s, Stantec commissioned a computerized power plant simulator replicating the hydroelectric plant’s operation. It was designed to train operators, evaluate contingencies, develop code, and test software. The stumbling block, however, was the limited computer and data storage capabilities. The technology available at the time could not process the copious amounts of data imported from online systems.
Today, this data is gathered in real time from the physical world. This is because of greater and more cost-effective computer and storage capabilities, together with a new generation of network connected sensors. It is used to create a virtual copy, which offers insight into how a mechanism or system is operating in real time and will operate over time.
The Third Set of Locks project includes two massive lock facilities—one on the Atlantic Ocean side and the other on the Pacific side.
What are the costs associated with digital twinning technology?
The initial investment for the new digital twin infrastructure is often costly. There is typically a cost for installing and operating new hardware and software as well as the cost of new human resources needed to learn, run, and maintain those systems.
The next big step for digital twinning could eliminate part of that cost. The answer is a cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) option. The digital twin then exists virtually. Its value and cost-effectiveness are due to the advantages brought about by simplified licensing and the elimination of the time and expense of near-constant updates and upgrades needed with traditional software and hardware.
SaaS has additional benefits as well. It allows for the seamless integration into any client's operations. It also provides a platform for geographically and technically diverse teams of experts to work closely together, eliminating the need for costly travel.
The Panama Canal Authority overcame the high initial cost hurdle by being one of the first adopters in this kind of project scale. They made BIM process and deliverables a part of their requirements.
Read and download Stantec era Issue 02: The Digital Issue
Digital twinning really is a uniquely powerful tool that delivers cost savings, life cycle management, and endless applications.
How can this technology help the life cycle of the project?
Once the digital twin system is put into place, it must be used and managed correctly. A successful life-cycle management of any project is dependent on this. The monumental task of analysis and interpretation of the complex data generated by digital twinning is a critical component. And, although digital twinning could include a certain degree of artificial intelligence, _q_tweetable:The genius of digital twinning is the ability to not only design and test complex systems but to manage them by manipulating time and looking into the future._q_it still requires interaction from a highly trained operator to make critical, real-time decisions regarding life-cycle management.
During our work on the Panama Canal, engineers were able to turn over the operation of the Third Set of Locks to the Panamanian Canal Authority so that every aspect of its operation could be managed efficiently by the local operators. They are now able to extensively replicate mechanical and electrical systems and run numerous scenarios. Now they can fully understand how each system would perform under many conditions, including normal operations, maintenance, and even emergency situations. The ability to test the performance of software updates and foresee issues of functionality and safety is critical for this major international transportation link.
The genius of digital twinning is the ability to not only design and test complex systems but to manage them by manipulating time and looking into the future. With better information and better sensors, operators can make faster, more intelligent decisions.
What are the applications of digital twining?
The applications for these powerful tools are endless. They are used in wind and gas turbines, power, hydro, and the mining industry. We need to take advantage of the higher quality and faster processing of high volumes of information and apply our valuable knowledge of power plant processes and equipment.
The next big application for digital twinning is smart cities. Designing and managing smart cities will be the ultimate combination of every industry coming together in a grand, urban setting. Since there’s no way to create a 1:1 scale of an entire city, digital twinning with virtual reality and augmented reality will allow people to understand the building types, traffic patterns, public spaces, and future development of a physical city.
The genius of digital twinning is the ability to not only design and test complex systems but to manage them by manipulating time and looking into the future.
The future is now
It’s true that the future is now. Today, in all industries, every function of a project can be duplicated and monitored in real time. We can play with time and look ahead to see what, if any, set of conditions would cause an unsafe situation for the system and correct for it now.
Digital twinning really is a uniquely powerful tool that delivers cost savings, life-cycle management, and endless applications. As we branch out into the vast, exciting possibilities of digital twinning solutions, industry professionals must be diligent to clearly understand and define the scope.
About the authors
Gabriel Llort is an electrical technical lead and Stantec vice president. He has 38 years of experience and was the deputy design manager-electromechanical for the Panama Canal Expansion project
Joseph Huang has more than 20 years of experience as a principal architect. He was the BIM manager for the Panama Canal Expansion project, managing more than 50 models across four continents.