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Why Digital Twinning May Become The New Normal

The phrase ”digital twin” sounds like something from science fiction, but it’s already here, and it has the potential to reshape building management.

Digital twins are appearing in all sorts of industries. The market was worth $3.8B worldwide in 2019 and is growing rapidly at 45% or more per year to potentially reach $35.8B by 2025, according to Markets and Markets.

Within commercial real estate, a digital twin is a virtual replica of a building. It is connected to real-time data flowing from sensors, meters and systems throughout the building, tracking metrics like air quality, temperature and electricity usage.

Advocates of digital twin technology say that by analyzing that data, building owners and operators can maintain their assets more easily, improve performance and save significant amounts of money through optimization. That’s in addition to boosting the health and wellness of the building’s occupants.

Digital twins are still in the early adoption stage, owing to their relatively new development and high price point. But as the technology improves and more competition enters the market, digital twin technology could soon become a standard part of building and managing a real estate asset.

“It's going to be huge,” said Michael Jansen, CEO of software company Cityzenith, which has a digital twin platform. “In five years, I think they will become the new normal for building industry technology.”

A screenshot of Cityzenith's SmartWorldPro 2 platform.

Invicara CEO Anand Mecheri said that aside from more efficient maintenance and management of buildings, digital twins allow for significant energy savings, and an overall improved occupant experience from a health standpoint — all without major human involvement.

“Buildings are going to be … self-monitoring and self-healing, which means the number of people involved to actually manage this process is going to diminish, and even those who are involved will be remote,” Mecheri said.

“You're going to bring a huge productivity improvement in the cost of operating buildings, that's going to be the next big thing, and ultimately, there's also going to be the additional value of being able to do simulations.”

Invicara manages a global portfolio of about 25M SF. Not all clients use the company’s full end-to-end digital twin offering, but many are at various stages of implementation. Invicara has built a user base overseas but is still ramping in the U.S. Mecheri said none of the company’s U.S. clients has taken up its end-to-end digital twin offering yet.

“In the U.S., we have had clients who have used our technology for not necessarily everything, not really a complete solution, but different pieces of our technology stack for different purposes, all in the direction of information management and operational efficiency,” Mecheri said.

Because digital twin technology is still relatively new, the price point can be too high for small to midsized real estate companies to use it yet.

Annual subscriptions for Cityzenith SmartWorldPro can cost $30K and above, depending on services, and pricing is typically customized. Users are charged recurring fees annually, and payments are made in advance. Contracts range from $50K to over $1M, Jansen said.

“Frankly, in general, we think that most of these solutions being provided to the commercial real estate industry are overpriced because of a lack of competition and innovation over the years,” Enertiv CEO Connell McGill told Bisnow.

“I don't know exactly what the peak pricing of digital twin technology is, but I imagine the sky is the limit.”

Jansen said many companies that lack true digital twin platforms have created add-on options to their software, which has also pushed prices up.

“It's far overpriced today, because a lot of the service providers, the big GIS [geographic information system], equipment controls companies, the BIM [building information modeling] and CAD [computer-aided design] software companies don't have a traditional digital twin platform, so they make you buy a bunch of things, and that gets very expensive,” Jansen said.

Invicara CEO Anand Mecheri

Digital twins are not the same as BIM. Unlike the analytics-driven, data-rich premise of a digital twin, BIM is a static design and mapping tool that creates high-quality construction drawings from a 3D model.

Mecheri said he started out with the goal of introducing more data into BIM, to try and convert it into digital twin technology. But it quickly became apparent that simply converting an existing BIM platform into a digital twin platform would not work.

“BIM is not, and can never be, a digital twin, purely because of how the models are produced, the process around it, the different stakeholders,” Mecheri said. “We realized there [was] an opportunity to create a platform — so that's what we did, we started off enabling BIM to be data-focused, and then we evolved our platform to make BIM a data source and extend it with much richer capabilities and integrations.”

Jansen told Bisnow that the prior company he founded, Satellier, provided BIM and CAD modeling services to architecture firms around the world. While the company grew successful, Jansen found that the sheer number of modeling and data management tools in the market meant that for every third client, his company had to learn new tools in order to provide solutions.

That prompted Jansen to consider building a single platform that could integrate existing data, and led to the eventual development of Cityzenith’s digital twin technology platform, SmartWorldPro.

Cityzenith has partnered with the Orlando Sports & Entertainment District to use the latest iteration of its technology, SmartWorldPro 2, which is due for release in July.

“I think this is one of the first serious and large-scale deployments in the U.S.,” Jansen said.

The goal will be to develop a smart district, which will have a digital twin and aggregate multiple data points ranging from parking to event ticketing to wayfinding, in a single application for both professional and tenant users.

Digital twin technology is rapidly evolving. Even in the last two years, Jansen has seen more companies embrace pilot programs and then full-scale deployments.

“I think within three to five years, digital twin solutions will be so well done and so good, that they'll be the beginning of a — I mean, there’s already major pushes, you know — but I think that’ll be a tipping point where other technologies might just get dumped,” Jansen said.

Jansen noted that there are many new products in the market that are calling themselves digital twins, offering various types of modeling and data services, but they may not be true digital twin technology.

“There's a whole category of products out there calling themselves digital twins, when they're basically just 3D visualization tools, they just give you a picture of something,” Jansen said.

“We invited several experts from all over the world in this space to give us feedback and commentary, and the definition of a digital twin today very much is visualization plus data.”

Enertiv CEO Connell McGill

Enertiv is an example of a company that uses some aspects of digital twin technology but does not consider itself a pure digital twin market player. McGill said the company relies on 360-degree camera technology to visually document all the critical systems and infrastructure of an asset.

The company gathers information about all the systems within a building, including basic details like make, model and age. From there, Enertiv incorporates the building floor plan information and diagrams that show the layout of electrical and mechanical systems.

All of that static information is stitched together with real-time data flowing from various systems within the building, which can be analyzed to identify inefficiencies.

“What we try to do is really provide 100% transparency into how an asset is performing, leveraging super-granular data so that we can provide insights and in some cases, take control over certain aspects to optimize how that property functions,” McGill said.

The company initially created its digital twin offering, Enertiv 360, as a stand-alone product, but ended up adding it as an automatically included feature for clients due to its popularity.

One of McGill’s priorities has been to keep Enertiv’s tools relatively simple for users. McGill noted that digital twin technology can quickly become highly futuristic and include features that are unnecessary for many building operators.

“Our approach at Enertiv has always been to introduce what's actually needed for our clients without over-investing in research and development,” McGill said. “When we talk about digital twins, we take a very light approach. We're using 360-degree cameras, all these tools are web-based, and we're not talking about super-advanced system modeling and augmented reality and being able to disassemble pumps and know where all the pieces go.”

“That's where the technology leads to, but that's not what's necessarily needed, nor are the users ready to adopt, at least in our market, in the commercial real estate industry.”

The needs of different users can differ widely. For example, the complexity of a digital twin platform for an airport or mission-critical asset like a hospital is very different to that of a suburban Class-B office building. In the world of digital twins, leveraging different systems to achieve a specific user’s goals is referred to as a “use case.”

“Every digital twin assignment comes with a use case, and the use case will vary,” Jansen said.

As attractive as digital twin technology is for building owners and operators, Mecheri said he has encountered some skepticism from potential clients, who have questioned how feasible it is to implement the technology within their current operations.

“Where we have found these issues, or non-issues, are where it’s owner-operator buildings, so where the client has their own operations strategy, they have a managed environment where they define how things are to be done, and that's where we see some of these pain points being eliminated,” Mecheri said.

“The skepticism is really about, how do I implement and how do I leverage it in my operations, and not so much about the benefit or the value of it.”

Cityzenith CEO Michael Jansen

The digital twin industry is a difficult one to be in, according to Mecheri. In the real estate sector, each building is essentially a new project from scratch, with a whole host of stakeholders coming together to collaborate.

“Creating digital twin solutions for the built environment is very different from creating a digital twin for the manufacturing industry, which is one of the reasons why digital twins have taken off in manufacturing,” Mecheri said.

“Whereas for construction it's slow coming because there's simply too many problems to solve, too many different people, stakeholders to align, and building the process and the technology framework to do all of that is a complicated business.”

Mecheri said that Invicara is getting around the issues and building solutions that are becoming smarter and more flexible, but that it takes a lot of time and deep pockets to solve some of these problems.

Jansen said that the real estate industry is beginning to move from the innovation stage to the early adopter stage, which will drive the uptake of digital twin technology over the next few years. Pilot programs began to emerge in 2019, and in 2020, Jansen expects more full-on deployments.

Cityzenith’s own project with the Orlando Sports & Entertainment District will also help push the U.S. market to use more digital twin technology, according to Jansen.

“My view is that there aren't enough really good, really well-done executed digital twin examples in the world today to create the mass movement that I think you're going to see in 2021 and beyond,” Jansen said.