The premise and promise of a digital twin seem clear-cut. A computer model that transitions across the building life cycle is naturally suited to become a single source of accurate, accessible, and insightful project and performance data. Upon construction completion, the model, created in a BIM program by the architects, augmented with technical specifications from engineers and as-built conditions from contractors and subconsultants, would then be handed over to the owner and facility manager and continue living as a real-time representation of the building, aggregating operation and maintenance needs, space conditions, and occupancy and use in a visual, understandable manner.
But this idealized information transfer remains largely out of reach for anyone who cannot afford developing a bespoke, custom-built solution. This gap has caught the attention of Autodesk, the San Francisco–headquartered software developer behind AutoCAD, Revit, and Fusion 360.
About three years ago, the company began developing a commercial solution to create digital twins for owners and operators. Last year, it released the cloud-based digital twin technology platform Tandem.
Earlier this year, Autodesk Tandem vice president and general manager Robert Bray previewed how Tandem could realize this digital information transfer in an article on Autodesk’s ongoing experiment with the company’s Toronto office. Tandem is aggregating data from the office’s building management system (BMS), enabling the study of its design in operation. Bray, who is based in Calgary, Alberta, has worked in software development across the AEC and infrastructure verticals at Autodesk for 26 years.
SBT: You must have insight into the different users of Autodesk products.
Bray: It certainly gives me a huge perspective on the AEC profession, but also the pain points of an owner. For years, the industry has talked about leveraging BIM data downstream and in operations: How do we get that data across that gap structured in a way that is useful to an owner, and [ensure that data can be trusted]? How do we think about the asset life cycle more holistically?
For me, it’s about helping an owner capture the digital thread of information about their asset, starting with the planning, design, and construction; stripping away the stuff that AEC professionals create and need, but not owners; taking that data beyond handover and utilizing it for space planning, predictive plan maintenance, or monitoring for meeting performance or sustainability criteria; and then incorporating that data into future planning scenarios or feeding it to AEC project teams for better design, build, and retrofit projects.
What’s the objective of Tandem?
With Tandem, we’re trying to address two things. One, how do we use that rich BIM data created by AEC professionals to help define and build that digital twin? This implies a deeper relationship between the project team and the owner in making sure the project team can understand the owner’s operational data requirements—[digital twins can help project teams] fill in that role of the BIM to FM.
The second part of Tandem is thinking how owners can take advantage of that [insight] to inform decisions about their facility. That’s the promise of digital twin.
When we started to look at this three years ago, what we saw and still see in industry is a digital twin ecosystem that is ill-defined. Owners and AEC teams have different perceptions of what a digital twin is. Getting a concrete industry definition is important.
What we also see is a lot of software and services for creating bespoke, custom digital twins that are expensive and hard to maintain. The modeling right now is done as a one-off. What we need is to democratize this capability, making it repeatable from a process perspective.
We’re shooting for a commercial off-the-shelf solution that can empower an owner or the project team to deliver digital twins that an operator can take ownership of and maintain over the life of the facility. That’s the gap or the concept we’re trying to fill.
Using existing, information-rich BIM models as a foundation for the next building phase certainly makes sense.
It’s good and bad. I talked to a number of owners who have, for example, a water leak and they end up shutting water off to the entire campus because they can’t find the valve for that particular building. That context of where assets are and their interconnectivity is something most owners don’t have today. BIM offers a high value proposition.
The downside is that most buildings don’t have good data today unless they’re a relatively new building. There’s lots of technology coming though that will help older facilities and existing facilities become more BIM-rich over time, include scan-to-BIM type capabilities, which we’re constantly watching for.
What capabilities does Tandem offer? Is it building a digital twin from scratch or building off existing BIM models?
Tandem is entirely browser-based today. For example, Autodesk occupies two floors of a building in Toronto. We have a twin of our two floors because, as an owner, that’s what we lease and that’s what we care about. So a twin doesn’t have to be the entire building.
Tandem allows me to create various views that give me access to the information I care about as an owner. Early in the process of defining a digital twin in Tandem is defining a facility template, which describes the asset, space, and system types I care about, and all the metadata I expect to find on each space, asset, and system type.
If I click on a particular part of the HVAC system, [the twin] will have data related to it, some of which might come from the Revit model, some from work that’s happening in the field, or from commissioning data. You can get the installation date, who installed it, model number, serial number, links to owner manuals—things that can be structured as a part of this asset information requirement.
Tandem brings this data in and maps it on the asset information model, the twin.
Who would map this data and ensure that data was robust?
Some of the data can come directly from the [BIM] model. In this case, we had good space models—LOD 200 level—but we didn’t have the mechanical model. We paid a contractor to augment our models with the HVAC equipment. Then we captured data from existing documents that we had for the facility.
For a project team, the AEC professional is typically capturing this data throughout the process. We’re working on two things to help with that. One is direct links to our portfolio of products, like Revit for capturing design data and bringing it directly into Tandem; and creating links to our Construction Cloud platform for capturing data like serial numbers, maintenance, manuals, and the installation process. Then we’re looking at third-party tools and integrations for commissioning; that might be tools in the AEC portfolio or external tools people use in the physical commissioning of devices, equipment, and systems.
We are also planning to bring to market a dashboard to validate data completeness and accuracy. We showed some proof of concepts during Autodesk University back in September. We basically have been taking customer feedback.
We also want to enable this connection to operational data. Tandem is connected to our BMS; each of these green dots on our model represents devices where we’re getting real-time data: flow rate, CO2, relative humidity, temperature for each zone. We are tracking that on a chart basis so I can see the history of this data over time. I can look at specific weeks, I can look at it in detail, and I can compare the charts of different devices—typical digital-twin stuff.
But contextual awareness is what makes this interesting. The devices know their relationship to that real-time data and their relation to the rooms. Now we can show a heat map of CO2 or temperature across all the zones on the floor so you can look for hot spots where you might have issues in the system.
This brings BIM data and real-time data together and gets a new kind of visual.
This seems like the visual interface of building performance that owners have been envisioning for some time.
What data inputs can Tandem accept?
In Tandem, you can create this notion of a stream, which is basically an endpoint for collecting data. Any internet-connected device can send data to Tandem. We’ve been able to do integrations with numerous off-the-shelf IOT sensors. In our Toronto example, we’re running a device within that facility that knows how to read the BACnet network and send data for each device to Tandem. We haven’t productized this yet, but we are working with a partner, Reekoh, to productize that BACnet integration. That will be coming later this year as well.
We see a lot of value here. A lot of owners say, “This is great—I can get all of my asset data at handover. I know it’s valid and accurate. Now can I initialize Maximo using that?”
Of course, the answer should be yes. The company that we’re in collaboration with has a no-code, low-code type of environment for system-to-system integration. The other [request] we hear a lot is Azure IoT. So we also have built in the capability to connect to an Azure IoT Hub, which might be installed in a facility to collect data. Azure accepts a ton of [communication protocols used by devices such as] occupancy sensors to environmental sensors to vibration sensors for equipment. And Tandem can connect to those through that Azure IoT Hub.
How can customers access their data through Tandem?
All of the Tandem data is available through our APIs and through various integrations. Most of it is available through an Excel import/export. That’s another good way to augment to model with data: just exporting data through Excel and bringing data back from Excel. We can do that as well.
How long has the Toronto office been testing this process?
We launched this capability with this office in late July, early August last year, so we’ve been tracking data since then. Our facilities team is working on getting additional offices into Tandem because they like this capability. And we’re testing scan-to-BIM different technologies in our offices as well. Using ourselves as a test bed is a powerful way to collect data and understand a facility manager’s point of view.
Do owners or facility managers need Revit to run Tandem?
No. Once, the model is in the cloud and in Tandem, they don’t need Revit at all, other than to modify the model [if necessary].
Are models from other BIM software programs compatible with Tandem?
Today, we support Revit and anything that can come into Tandem through IFC (Industry Foundation Classes). For example, Archibus models, Tekla Structures, those can come into Tandem. And we’re working on additional formats all the time—things like 3D DWG, Navisworks. They’re not in the product today, but they’re in alpha or beta now.
Your blog post mentions that users can sign up for a Tandem pilot. What is involved?
The release product supports aggregating the data and as-built information and building the asset information models. What’s in beta today and what you can sign up for is the data-streaming capability of connecting to a BACnet system or to IOT sensors, and doing heat maps.
For the beta users, are you looking for owners and facility managers or for AEC professionals as well?
We work with a combination. What we see in industry now are owners putting out RFPs for new building projects that have digital twin–like requirements. AEC firms are looking to understand how to respond. We also see interest from owners about understanding how they can take better advantage of the data they’re getting from their contractors.
What we’re trying to do with Tandem is make it easy for owners to create a digital twin, maintain it over time, and achieve better outcomes through it—without all of that bespoke nature and expense of typical digital twin creation. Let’s make digital twins mainstream for the industry.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.