Where do we stand in Germany when it comes to the digital twin?
What role does the Digital Twin play in digital transformation?
And are the Digital Twins and their (future) use more hype or booster for our economy?

INTERGEO TV host Denise Wenzel talks about these questions and more with our guest and expert on the current INTERGEO video podcast, Prof. Dr. Jörg Blankenbach. Among other things, he researches and teaches on the topic of digital twins at RWTH Aachen University, where he heads the Geodetic Institute and the Chair of Construction Informatics and Geoinformation Systems.

Watch or listen now to this interesting interview with Prof. Jörg Blankenbach on the topic of "Digital Twin" as well as insights into current research projects on the subject and his assessment of "Hype or Booster".

Original version of the interview available in German only. Transcribed text in English.

You've been researching the topic of digital twins for several years. What fascinates you about it?

The idea of the digital twin is fascinating in itself, as a holistic digital representation of a real object that is in a control loop with the real representation. In other words, a fusion of the real and digital worlds, which can lead to exciting new possibilities.

Do you see the digital twin more as hype or as a booster for our economy?

In many cases, the discussion about the digital twin is certainly still hype, which will also experience disillusionment after the classic hype cycle. In terms of the idea behind it, however, it describes the digital transformation in the truest sense of the word and also like hardly any other concept. That is why the digital twin can become a core element for the implementation of digital transformation in some areas.

Where do we stand in Germany in terms of Digital Twin?

We are certainly still at the beginning. The idea has been discussed in science and research for some time now, and major technology companies also described the vision of the digital twin several years ago.

However, we are currently beginning to look more intensively at its realization, i.e., its implementation in practice, and this is naturally accompanied by many challenges for which solutions of both a methodological and practical nature must be found. And that's where we're really still at the beginning.

You are the head of the Geodetic Institute and the Chair of Construction Informatics and Geoinformation Systems at RWTH Aachen University, which is the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen. And the Geodetic Institute, is located at the Faculty of Civil Engineering. So geodesy and construction belong together in your world?

Yes, definitely. In the first lecture in surveying for civil engineers, I tell the students every year: "Wherever there is construction, there must also be surveying, both before and during and after the actual construction of the building."

With this I want to express that there is a strong connection between geodesy and construction, even though there are certainly other neighboring disciplines to which geodesy has a close link.

A current research project is the "road of the future"! In your definition, the road is more than paved asphalt on which vehicles get from A to B?

In fact, the road of today is not much different from the road of the past in terms of its function. It is true that roads have evolved over time: different asphalt is used today than in the past, and protective systems such as guard rails look different than they did 30 years ago. But the essential function of the road is still to carry the vehicle's load as well as possible and thus to enable it to move quickly from A to B. This is astonishing in that any coffee machine today is already "smarter" than a road, even though the road is an indispensable element for both the economy and individual traffic.

And even if we shift parts of our traffic more to rail in the future, or if we use electrified vehicles instead of internal combustion engines, the great importance of the road as the number one mode of transport will not change in the foreseeable future.

And this is actually the crux of the matter: In order to better deal with the high volume of traffic and its consequences - e.g., traffic jams, but also wear and tear and frequent damage and roadworks - on the one hand, and to be able to implement developments such as autonomous driving in practice on the other, the road must become intelligent. And the concept of the digital twin is predestined for this.

Another project is the so-called "EnergyTWIN". I see from your website that it's about "new sensor-based and AI-based methods for the digital, BIM-based commissioning of technical systems in building structures and their energy system optimization" , in plain language, does that mean you're researching a solution that helps save energy?

In the final analysis, yes, although I would describe the goal of the project from a different perspective. With modern energy systems, which today are already completely digitally designed, the use of energy can be optimized and thus energy can be saved. However, such systems are highly complex and are therefore often not operated optimally in practice. And this is where the digital twin comes into play again. With a digital twin and the real "twinning", i.e. the implementation of a control loop between the real energetic system in a real building and its digital counterpart, highly complex energetic systems could be optimally and adaptively controlled and thus also the full potential could be exploited.

Energetic systems are therefore good demonstrators of the effectiveness and potential of digital twins in practice.

You research and teach on the topic of the digital twin. Are you taking the business community directly along for the ride?

Absolutely. The topic is certainly still in its infancy - especially in the construction industry - so there are still many methodological and fundamental research questions. Nevertheless, the implementation of digital twins can certainly not be carried out purely theoretically from the ivory tower. Digital twins should develop their full potential in practice, in the operation and maintenance of buildings. For research and development, it is therefore essential to work together with technology manufacturers and service providers as "enablers" on the one hand and users on the other in order to find optimal solutions.

You have other research projects on the subject of the digital twin. Will there be a separate digital twin for each use case later on?

It is certainly not yet entirely clear how digital building twins will actually be used and implemented in practice. In my mind, however, a digital twin can and should ideally serve several use cases in order to achieve the highest added value. Nevertheless, digital building twins can and must certainly look somewhat different from one building to the next. This is an essential difference between a machine in production technology, which may be thousands of times in exactly the same form in a more or less similar production hall, and a sometimes individualized building that is located in a specific environment on the earth's surface. And this is also a major challenge in the implementation of a digital twin in the construction industry.

In the initial round of questions, you said that we are at the very beginning with digital twins. When can we expect to see networked, functioning digital images of our reality in Germany?

That's a good question, but also a difficult one to answer.

First of all, I believe that digital twins will be implemented at different speeds in different sectors. In building construction, digital twins could actually already be implemented today as an extension of the "smart home," especially for parts of the building technology. However, such intelligent buildings have not yet become established on a broad scale, even though much more would already be technically possible. Therefore, an impulse is always needed. Perhaps this will be the energy turnaround in the building sector.

In the area of infrastructure construction, on the other hand, i.e., roads, bridges, dams, dikes, supply and disposal infrastructure, the situation is completely different. Here, we are still in the early stages of technological development, for example in digital modeling or the use and installation of sensor and communication technology. However, the potential of digital twins, especially for asset management, including digital documentation of operations, virtual inspection and predictive maintenance, is enormous. Nevertheless, it will certainly be many years before we see digital road, bridge or dike twins in practice, because here in particular there are also questions to be clarified that go beyond pure IT feasibility, for example in the area of data protection and data security, since such structures are often also part of the critical infrastructure.

And last but not least, the human factor plays a central role in the implementation of digital twins, as it does for the entire digital transformation. We must involve people as users and consumers in the development and introduction of digital twins from the outset in order to create acceptance. Otherwise, even the technologically best digital twin will not be able to establish itself in practice.

Thank you Prof. Blankenbach for this interview! See you soon at INTERGEO 2022 in October in Essen!