Virtual twins are the keystone of resilient infrastructure

Simon Huffeteau, Vice President, Infrastructure & Cities Strategy, Dassault Systèmes

9 February 2022

3 min read

Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was it built for a day. Population density and technological advances pushed the architects and engineers of antiquity to design and build roads, bridges and aqueducts that not only served the bustling city, but also enabled its future growth.

Many of those structures, having been refurbished and upgraded many times over, are still in use today, marvels of what modern engineers call “long-term asset optimization.”

Like their ancient counterparts, today’s engineers must design and build public assets that last for generations. When calculating the long-term asset optimization of their structures, however, modern engineers must include a measurement unimagined by their ancient ancestors: their structures’ cost to future generations, including environmental degradation caused by greenhouse gas emissions and depletion of natural resources. 

As if that challenge weren’t tricky enough, the builders of modern cities and infrastructure also must envision and adapt to a fast-shifting future: How can we ensure having enough investment to shift from hydrocarbon-based mobility to electric mobility? How can the electrical grid supply the sharply increasing demands if production is performed by intermittent renewables? Can the telecom network continue to receive increasing data traffic while reducing its energy consumption? How will rising sea levels affect the water supplies, treatment plants, roads, businesses and homes of coastal cities?

Fortunately, although we can’t predict the future, there are parts of it we can imagine and simulate.

To optimize the balance among competing factors of cost, safety, longevity, adaptability and sustainability, today’s most forward-thinking designers and engineers are leveraging advanced computer design and simulation technology to create virtual twins of their projects. The virtual twins are then used to share information and orchestrate activities between all parties involved. These scientifically accurate digital representations help teams of engineers understand every bit of their inner workings and optimize every aspect of their designs in the context of the environments where they will be built.

For example: How will the structural integrity of a bridge degrade over time, as temperature fluctuations increase and traffic doubles? Can we design a public building to be disassembled and moved if sea levels rise, or re-use the materials to build something else? With a few clicks, the virtual twin can help engineers visualize all of these scenarios, and thousands more.

But this approach goes far beyond designing or engineering. Virtual twins are living blueprints constantly mirroring the real world, so they also help optimize urban operations and evolution. Indeed, operation of buildings contributes to a much higher percentage of GHG emissions than the construction of buildings. Because every detail of every component installed during construction is stored in the virtual twin, it gives asset owners all the information they need to operate systems efficiently, execute maintenance before something breaks and renovate with minimal disruption. And because it is much cheaper to create in the virtual world, the necessary adaptation to the real world can be anticipated, forecasted and budgeted years ahead.

As powerful as virtual twins are, however, they have lacked one capability critical to optimizing asset management for future generations: they couldn’t tell engineers the sustainability costs of the materials, suppliers and construction processes employed in their designs and the impact of their usage was difficult to assess. For example, a motor manufactured by a supplier that has access to renewable power is more sustainable than a nearly identical motor manufactured by one whose local power plant burns coal.

Such data is known as “life cycle assessment” (LCA) and it has been beyond the scope of virtual twins... until now. For the first time, newly introduced technology integrates LCA data with virtual twins, shining a light on choices about materials, construction methods and suppliers at the ideation stage. And LCA is part of a bigger picture: the ability to precisely model the entire system – from the natural environment an asset belongs to through the service the asset provides to our communities.

Empowered with complete system analysis, engineers can see the impacts of their choices as a design evolves, adding sustainability measures to the concept of “asset value optimization.” With this vital new insight, virtual twins will help ensure that structures built today will not only outlive us, but will limit as much as possible the impact on our planet for the generations that follow, while delivering to our communities the value they have been created for.

Simon Huffeteau is Vice President of Infrastructure & Cities Strategy at Dassault Systèmes


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