Digital twins: Shaping a brighter path for construction and higher education
For over 15 years, our work with Houston Community College (HCC) has led to the delivery of projects like San Jacinto Memorial Building Historic Renovation, Missouri City Sienna Plantation Campus and more. Now, part of our partnership with HCC is going virtual. Recently, our team members partnered with HCC students and the school’s Reality Collab to create a digital twin of HCC’s Central Campus. The end result points to an array of possibilities on the horizon for digital twin use in education and beyond.
During a visit to HCC’s Reality Collab in 2022, Skanska team members saw an opportunity to work with HCC in a new way.
“We were touring their facility and seeing the breadth of technology and tools they have in their lab,” says Senior Preconstruction Technologist Edwin Bailey. “We thought, there could be a way to apply these technologies through a meaningful collaboration between construction and higher education.”
The various uses of digital twins
Digital twins are more than a trend. Across all types of industries, they are being realized as invaluable tools to tackle a variety of challenges, unlock new efficiencies and connect people with meaningful data.
“They are essentially advanced visualizations. More than a model, digital twins can serve as analytical tools that are companions to dashboards or other reporting mechanisms,” says Edwin.
Digital twins are enhanced visuals that can amplify a spatially aware data story that someone is trying to tell. As virtual models of physical systems that use real-time data and simulation, digital twins can also improve performance, identify potential issues, test scenarios and more.
Their benefits and use cases in construction are many, from improved planning and design and better risk management to optimizing smart building systems.
At a basic level, digital twins tend to fall into three categories: product digital twins, process digital twins and system digital twins. From there, the customization capabilities and use cases for this branch of technology are seemingly endless.
The specific idea to create a digital twin of HCC’s Main Campus came out of Skanska’s tour of the Reality Collab.
Even before the exact use case for the model was defined, Edwin and HCC staff, faculty and students knew that they had a worthy vision, and the right resources, to create something of impact. Together, they felt there was something unexplored at the intersection of digital twins and education that was worth tapping into. As the industry's application of digital twins progresses, HCC's vision for a campus digital twin would also evolve.
HCC Professor and Founder and Associate Director of the Reality Collab, Rubén Durán, was enthusiastic from the start.
“This project with Skanska aligned perfectly with the ongoing work of HCC's Reality Collab. This space is dedicated to exploring and implementing cutting-edge immersive technologies both in the physical and imaginative realms,” he says.
Building a digital twin that can evolve
“Working with Rubén, we were aligned in the concept to have this digital twin be a living document, something that could be developed further with HCC students and utilized as a learning tool down the road,” says Edwin.
With that guiding concept, the team got to work. Data capture via flying drones and modeling took place first.
Ryan Galbraith, a student at the time, leaned into the opportunity and the expertise of Edwin and Rubén. Their partnership empowered him to carry out much of the work required to build the framework for the initial model.
“Coming into this project, I was a novice in the digital twin world,” says Ryan. “Without Edwin’s guidance, enthusiasm and expertise in this technology and software, completing the project would have been difficult.”
“We focused on how to start a digital twin from an existing campus, which required a lot of data capture,” says Edwin. “From there, we started to incorporate newer buildings on campus that the school already has BIM models for.”
Unlike a small-scale digital twin that might mirror one building, taking on this campus project was like creating a small city.
Successful in their efforts, the team is already seeing how their campus digital twin offers multiple benefits for the broader HCC community.
“This innovative project provides organic and versatile applications,” says Rubén. “For instance, students enrolled in the Solar Energy program can effectively utilize the digital twin to calculate energy needs for a small college campus, enabling them to optimize energy usage and contribute to sustainability efforts.”
Prospective students also benefit from the comprehensive model.
“Another significant advantage is its utility in conducting campus tours and introducing high school students to the HCC Central Campus community,” continues Rubén. “This immersive experience allows them to explore and familiarize themselves with the campus before physically visiting. In turn, it’s creating a more engaging and informative introduction.”
Ryan sees how the digital twin can benefit more than one group of people. “It’s a valuable map, essentially an urban planning model, which can show changes that HCC might want to make,” he says. “It’s also a training model for everyone else—architects, engineers and teachers—and we can use it to simulate real-world scenarios within a safe environment.”
Enhancing the model and the student experience
The HCC Main Campus digital twin continues to be enhanced by Rubén and the students who are involved in the work of the Reality Collab.
“Significant developments have been made to enhance it including adding directions and building interiors,” says Rubén. “Also, the entire digital twin has been moved to the cloud, creating smoother accessibility and seamless user interaction.”
Making the twin beneficial to the everyday HCC student is top of mind.
“We are focused on integrating immersive learning into the curriculum to enhance learning outcomes,” says Rubén. “After piloting eight courses last year, the early data is highly encouraging, indicating that immersive technologies hold great potential in revolutionizing education.”
Incorporating class schedules directly into the twin is another potential enhancement. Doing so could enable students to navigate the campus more easily.
As a former HCC student himself, Ryan reflects fondly on his experience of helping create HCC’s first digital twin.
“Unquestionably, this project taught me every skill I needed to get started in building digital twins,” says Ryan. “It broadened the idea of what can be done in the digital/modeling/capture space.”
“Today, I’m a geospatial technician with a large engineering firm,” he continues. “I work with digital twins of all different types. Everyday it's another form of a digital twin that I am working with and I love it.”