Between raging bushfires, record droughts and a global pandemic, Australia’s architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry has endured immense challenges over the past two years.

The industry has had to navigate global supply chain issues, new health and safety protocols, while adapting to remote working conditions amidst recurring lockdowns.

More recently, construction in parts of the country was temporarily shut down in order to curb the spread of the virus, resulting in deferred projects and a large portion of the sector’s labour force out of work. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty, the AEC industry has made a significant shift toward new technologies to establish a level of business continuity and ultimately, stay afloat.

As part of this transition, AEC companies have not only embraced technology to facilitate the remote and hybrid working conditions but have incorporated new innovations to enhance their core operations and business functions. From reducing costs, increasing safety and improving business outcomes, the benefits have been far reaching.

While digital transformation in AEC was well underway prior to the pandemic, the events of the past 18 months have catapulted the sector years into the future. Now with the Australian government laying down it’s roadmap out of the pandemic, the industry must ensure it has the right tools and capabilities not only to survive the transition but thrive well beyond it.

Industry 4.0 gaining pace

The fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, emphasises the importance of digital technology advancements such as digitalisation and automation to increase interconnectivity across all sectors. But what exactly does this mean for the AEC industry?

Essentially, digitisation transforms how AEC professionals design, build and utilise their products and spaces. With centralised digital data, businesses can benefit from increased access to real-time data from site selection to design to post-construction design to post-construction. Not only do these capabilities allow for better, more informed decision making, but they have a meaningful impact on the bottom line, often through reduced labour costs and increased efficiency.

Among the technologies shaking up the sector are digital twins – photorealistic 3D replicas of the built world – which have enabled AEC businesses to overcome the barriers presented by social distancing and lockdowns. Digital twin technology is now being used to transition organisations within the AEC industry to adapt to Industry 4.0 and bring physical spaces to life within the virtual world.

The disruptive potential of digital twins

A digital twin is a digital copy of a real-world place or object, whether that's a room, entire building or outdoor space. Powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, digital twins are dimensionally accurate 3D models that can be consistently updated to reflect changes with its physical counterpart.

The digital twin technology has allowed AEC professionals to add in a new layer of powerful real-time data on top of more traditional virtual visualization workflows such as 3D and BIM modelling. By pairing physical and virtual spaces, companies can analyse real-time data and build simulations to address potential problem areas and develop new, innovative strategies.

While physical distancing is still a strain on the AEC industry, by leveraging digital twin technology companies can still improve their customer experience, develop enhancements to their services and increase innovation to their business virtually.

Improving the way, we design and build

While the AEC industry is fundamentally about constructing the physical world, digital twins play a key role in increasing productivity across the sector by allowing teams to collaborate and work remotely with spatial and measurement data that can be explored by anyone in the world with an internet connection. 

For example, architecture firms can leverage digital twin technology beyond the pandemic to reduce their footprint on job sites, speed up design and project management processes and improve access to information inside and outside the company.

When it comes to the build phase, digital twins can effectively reduce the number of participants required on-site throughout the construction processes. The benefits of this extend far beyond the pandemic, translating into decreased labour costs and potentially improvements to safety in the longer term.

Construction is a complex undertaking, with legacy processes that span regulators, architects, contractors, and building owners. The application of digital twins, which create a digital representation of real-world systems and components, is especially important as a communication and workflow efficiency tool for an industry seen as slow to adopt digital technology relative to others.

Digital twins promise to be a key enabler as the construction industry races to catch up with demand for new facilities and new layouts in the wake of COVID-19.

Meeting the needs of the future

The pandemic has created an opportunity for the AEC industry to face previous digital challenges head-on and fast-track the adoption of new technology. As a result, we’ve seen forward leaning companies embrace data driven technologies such as digital twins to completely transform the way things are done and unlocking new value chains.

In a post-COVID-19 world, it is the AEC companies that expedite their transition to digital technology that will grow and strengthen in Industry 4.0. By prioritizing advancements in digital twin technology, these companies will be able to interact, share data and reinvent their work processes to increase their productivity, decrease costs and create innovative solutions.

It might sound simple, but by adding a digital twin to the traditional builder, manager or engineer’s toolkit, companies can help the AEC industry technologically evolve to meet the digital needs of the future.

Stephanie Lin is the Senior Director of Business Strategy at Matterport.

Image: Supplied