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Although many construction projects have continued during COVID-19, between social distancing and safety measures it has been more difficult than ever for management to stay connected to their team on the ground and to have clear visibility into the progress on their jobsites. As a result, companies have begun to lean more heavily onsite modeling solutions, such as digital twins, as a substitute for onsite management. This trend will likely continue even after the pandemic.

Every digital twin platform is different, but in general, they involve the use of off-the-shelf 360-degree cameras to take images of every space on a jobsite that are then stitched together into a 3D model of the site. The level of convenience and in-depth detail offered by modern digital twins makes them an effective tool to greatly increase the accuracy, speed and usability of information at a jobsite.

However, any new process or technology is only as effective as its capabilities. Digital twin solutions differ greatly in both their implementation and how they’re actually used, so it’s not always clear-cut to find a partner based on a contractor’s specific needs. There are five things business leaders should consider when evaluating partners to create digital twins for their jobsites.

1. Ease of Use

No matter how a construction executive approaches the challenge, creating a usable and accurate digital model of a jobsite is a difficult task which sometimes requires advanced cameras and management platforms. However, the difficulty of implementing that platform can differ widely from provider to provider. Some solutions require large, specialized cameras that can only be operated by professionals, and are heavy and cumbersome. On the other hand, some platforms can be implemented much more easily without requiring any technical expertise, but may limit the quality and number of captures or present usability challenges. 

The right solution often lies somewhere in-between, but will differ depending on what is required from a digital twin. The key here is to select a tool that balances image quality and ease of use with the resource expertise that is available for surveys. 

2. Speed of Capture

Just as varying solutions require different equipment to take images of the jobsite, they also work very differently. Some solutions require a lot of manual configuration and expertise, and take days to capture 20,000 square meters, while others can do the same in a day. 

Even after pictures are taken, that’s only the first step of the process. The second is the actual construction of the digital twin, a process that differs from provider to provider. On the low end, the provider simply delivers the images, labeled by room or by capture point, and loads them into a photo library where they can be accessed by the team. This process can become difficult to parse through and use effectively as more and more images are added, especially for large sites with hundreds if not thousands of images. 

On the higher end, the providers will automatically organize and load images into a 3D environment that users can walk through, just like Google Street View. This uploading and processing phase can take anywhere from a few minutes to 24 hours or more.

Contractors should be realistic about their timelines, the resources available to them and their expertise. While more advanced solutions often capture higher quality images, if a contractor has a very large jobsite with dozens or even hundreds of capture points, building the full digital twin could take days with some solutions. If the plan is to use a digital twin to track progress and compare images on given capture points on a weekly or more frequent basis, then technology that requires many hours or days to complete a twin may not be a good fit. Speed of capturing images and speed of processing to build the digital twin quickly is what’s needed.

3. Collaboration

New users of digital twin technology need to have a very clear understanding of how their platform will upload and organize information. From that they can develop processes for their internal teams to make to best use the twin.

Once the digital twin is created, organizing the twins by sites, locations and projects is important particularly when working on numerous projects simultaneously across different sites in multiple locations. Organizing them logically and providing access to them selectively is critical in maintaining the security and integrity of the projects. 

How a given solution enables the user to collaborate across projects from conception to completion, sharing progress, managing punch-lists, repairs and maintenance logs and providing virtual tours are all important considerations.

4. Security

The utility offered by having a fully walkable, digital model of a jobsite that constantly evolves as a project progresses is apparent, but it also creates some blatant security concerns. When a picture is taken, how is that data transmitted and shared? Any contractor working with a digital twin provider should ask questions about where the images go after they’re taken, who has access to them and how they’re protected. 

Additionally, the digital twin itself is a valuable asset that the construction company or even the client may not want public, especially in an unfinished state. Contractors should be asking questions about who owns the captures, how a digital twin is accessed and where it is stored (SaaS, dedicated servers, on-premise). Contractors should always prioritize security over ease of access, especially with sensitive client data.

5. Scalability

As digital twin providers’ offerings differ greatly, so do their pricing structures and ability to scale with a business. Some providers price based on the number of capture points, some based on the square footage of the project and some simply on the number of total captures. Which solution works best for a given company will depend on their individual needs. 

Beyond pricing, it’s important to evaluate a solution’s ability to scale to the numbers and sizes of sites and ensure there are no bottlenecks in retrieving and viewing the digital twins. In addition, consider which stakeholders need access, their locations and frequency of access.

Digital twins have the ability to be an enormously powerful collaboration tool for virtually every construction company—but one size does not fit all. If an enterprise goes into the exploration and selection process with the above elements in mind, they’re much more likely to select the solution that best serves their needs and succeeds in making a measurable business impact.

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