Creating a building’s ‘digital twin’

By | 4 minute read | November 1, 2017

Buildings have long functioned a bit like our bodies. Plumbing circulates through the building walls, wires innervate every room while concrete and I-beams underpin the whole frame. But until recently these indispensable bedrocks of the modern world have lacked the most critical body part—a brain. Without one, humans have had to manage the lights, power and temperature; service the elevators and other equipment; monitor security cameras; keep rooms stocked with supplies. Powerful new cognitive abilities are emerging from the massive data flows of physical structures.

Enter the 21st century building “digital twin.”

Think of it as a dynamic, virtual model of the physical structure, powered by the massive amounts of data that a single structure generates around the clock—everything from design specs to equipment parameters and live occupancy data.

With IoT-enabled sensors tracking a building’s “pulse” and feeding data back into next-generation systems such as Watson, facility owners and managers today are able to reconstruct every relevant metric from a physical structure in a digital environment. Every asset—from the HVAC system to the vending machines—can be monitored and analyzed remotely. But how do you manage those assets over time? How much power is a particular floor using? And how does that track against the recent jump in headcount? Where are the leaks causing heating and cooling loss? Which parts of the elevators are wearing down and will need replacing next month? Did the vending machine on the thirteenth floor just run out of Diet Coke?

Only 2/3 commercial retail is fully utilized

According to the IBM Institute for Business Value, of the 12 billion square feet of commercial real estate in the U.S., only two-thirds is fully utilized. And the largest tenants—those with more than 50,000 square feet of space—account for 36 percent of all rented space, according to the same research. So any measures those owners find to reduce power and resource expenditure on dormant space will yield big savings as well as significant reductions in power consumption.

In this battle for efficiency, even elevators can be powerful tools. KONE operates 1.1 million lifts in more than 60 countries. That is a lot of up and down, but with some smarts included in the trips, it becomes much more, says KONE CIO Antii Koskelin. KONE has recently embarked on a project that puts sensors in its lifts to listen to not just how the equipment is functioning, but how people are using it. Borrowing from studies and data around how traffic flows in streets, KONE is looking at its elevator data to better understand how people move through buildings. “How much time can we cut from the elevator wait every morning that people endure in big city office buildings in New York, Shanghai, London and the like?” Koskelin asks. “Even shaving two or three minutes will make a difference.”

Time is money

Time saved means better productivity, but understanding people flows in buildings and then becoming a guide can also offer energy savings. Say you have several floors in a building that are used for “hot-desking”—the sharing of desks and space on an as-needed basis. You don’t care what floor you go to, you just need a space to work. Elevators could help fill those floors in the most efficient manner based on live data, coupled with calendar data of the people seeking out desks. The lift guides you to a floor, and when that fills up, the next batch of people is guided to the next floor, and so on. Meanwhile, building owners aren’t lighting, cooling and ventilating vacant or underutilized floors. “The people flow data allows us to anticipate needs, and respond as needed,” Koskelin says. “The elevators act as more than just a machine that goes up and down, they act as smart guides.”

Offloading the tedium of facility management

Now that builders are able to create these “digital twins” in buildings, owners can offload some of the tedium of facility management. No more guiding the air-conditioner tech to the problem spot. The tech arrives, and the location of the wheezing AC compressor is highlighted on a phone or tablet—down this hall and on the other side of this wall—along with the necessary tech specs to fix it, as well as who gets the bill. All of that is already captured in the data of the “digital twin.”

No more worrying about turning off the sprinklers in the rain—or flipping them on again when it stops. The health of the landscaping and moisture in the soil are continuously monitored.

The constant vigilance—or presence, really—of a building’s “digital twin” offers other more subtle benefits. For one customer, IBM’s Watson solved the mystery of a broken piece of critical machinery. Watson was able to scan two weeks of video footage and pinpoint when a delivery truck bumped a sensitive piece of robotics on the factory floor causing an escalating malfunction. Mystery not only solved, but the factory owner also knew where to send a bill for the repair work.

Buildings have been critical but mostly silent structures for centuries. Now innovation has finally added that critical piece of their construction—intelligence—so commercial owners can both save costs and re-focus people on the tasks they do better: create the products and services of the future.

Learn more about what the IoT can do for your buildings.