Digital Twins can revolutionize facility operations

Over the last few decades, buildings have been converting their systems to digital and becoming increasingly intelligent. However, the interaction between digital building systems and day-to-day operations has lagged behind advancements in technology. Managers still often struggle to maintain systems that break down and control systems vendors often provide minimal and expensive support, and as a result, energy spending climbs, comfort-related complaints increase, and operations budgets get cut.


Buildings account for 40 per cent of the world’s energy consumption, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 30 per cent of the energy consumed within a building is wasted through inefficiency – FacilitiesNet writes adding that: Building owners and facility managers will often spend millions installing complex building controls systems, energy efficient mechanical, HVAC, electrical, and plumbing systems, then expect everything to just work. Unfortunately, these expectations are rarely met as managers still struggle to maintain systems that break down or start to deviate from ideal operating conditions. 


The Retro-commissioning way

One way of combatting system breakdowns is regular retro-commissioning events or energy audits. The challenge with these is that about 50 per cent of implemented measures revert to a failed state within 8 years. (This is why it is recommended to do retro-commissioning on a four-year cycle to ensure that measures continue to provide value and the building continues operating more optimally.) No wonder why the industry is shifting toward utilizing a monitoring-based approach to commissioning. LEED even provides credit for implementing monitoring-based commissioning. However, this approach is only truly successful if combined with an automated fault detection and diagnostic system. 


Work orders from more sophisticated systems will identify the issue, provide recommendations, and quantify the energy savings that will result from rectifying the issue. (It is also critically important that this approach is provided by an independent consultant who isn’t associated with the building automation system.) These platforms can also help automate compliance reporting for metrics like greenhouse gas emissions, energy use intensity, cost and area, daily operational costs, and other client-driven KPIs. 


The Digital Twins approach 

The latest and rapidly developing approach to improving building operations is the transition to Digital Twins – 3D digital representations of a real-world asset. Digital Twins are commonplace in the manufacturing and automotive industry, but more recently have begun to popularize in the real estate and construction industries


The approach in applying the practice of digital twins to buildings is to provide dimensional clarity of the information to allow immediate response and a holistic understanding. By understanding what and where the issue is, and how it impacts other systems, it can rapidly be identified and resolved. 


Digital Twins help building owners and facility managers with their aggressive environmental goals by identifying areas of waste energy, how to improve them, and where they are occurring, while also providing operational data such as testing and balancing reports or operations and maintenance manuals to speed up the process of troubleshooting issues.  


A 3D model is developed either by building scanning (the process of Scan-to-BIM) or through design documentation and ingested into the digital twin platform. The data from the building management system (BMS) and other IoT systems are then tagged to individual 3D assets, and this is presented in an online platform for use by facility managers and owners. Managers can easily identify the issues occurring within the building, click on the asset to see what it is currently doing through live sensor data, see what interaction the failed system is having with other systems, and then pull up digital copies of asset data.


Days of effort turned into a 30 minutes workflow

„A recent example from one of our projects identified an air-handling system that was operating continuously at full speed while downstream components were satisfied, which resulted in excessive fan energy being used” – Daniel Kolimar, Executive Director at NV5 – a technology, conformity assessment, and consulting solutions provider – tells FacilitiesNet.

NV5’s solution identified the issue and notified the facility operator, who was then able to see that the issue occurring at the unit and how it was impacting 12 downstream systems. NV5 not only determined the cost but also informed the facility of a potential solution. 


“Historical testing and balancing reports, linked to the 3D asset, were utilized to show how the units should operate based on operating conditions. What would previously have taken technicians days of effort, if it was identified at all, was shortened to a workflow that took less than half-an-hour from start to finish” – Kolimar points out. 


A digital twin can help revolutionize how building operators and owners interact with their buildings to continuously optimize their buildings, reduce costs and improve margins, and make spaces healthier and more comfortable for building occupants. 


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