Civil Engineering

Bentley Systems Believes Digital Twins Are 'the Future,' and Invests Accordingly

17 Oct, 2018 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

The company is committed to developing digital twin technologies for infrastructure projects and assets, including an iTwin Services cloud platform and a plant operations solution created in partnership with Siemens.

At its annual Year in Infrastructure conference, under way this week in London, Bentley Systems announced iTwin Services, a digital twin cloud offering for infrastructure projects and assets. Scheduled for release in early 2019, iTwin Services is a testament to Bentley’s belief in the promise of the digital twin: “I really do believe it’s the future,” said CTO Keith Bentley.

A digital twin is a virtual replica of something in the real world, such as a machine, structure, or process. Rather than existing in isolation, the digital and physical counterparts are paired with each other; the former integrates data about the latter, such as its frequency of use or operating conditions, giving its owners insight into how it’s functioning in the world.

Adam Klatzkin, senior director of iModel Technologies for Bentley Systems, believes that the time has come for digital twins to be regularly leveraged in the infrastructure arena. The scope and complexity of infrastructure projects and assets, however, pose challenges beyond those inherent in other kinds of digital twins. Collecting up-to-date data about the status of a freeway or building site is a far more arduous and expensive task than keeping tabs on the condition and location of a backhoe, for example. And as-operated engineering information is often inaccessible, due to conflicts in data structure or format. “You can’t base a digital twin on dark data,” said Klatzkin.

These challenges are the reason, as CEO Greg Bentley said, “you’ve heard not a thing from Bentley Systems about digital twins until now” — but the company has surmounted them, he explained. The specter of dark data was banished with the company’s launch of the iModel 2.0 cloud platform and iModelHub service last year, and reality capture techniques, combined with Bentley’s reality modeling software, are making it practical to create and update representations of even large infrastructure assets. Drone-mounted and terrestrial cameras, as well as laser scanners, can capture data about projects and assets quickly and relatively inexpensively — and therefore, frequently. The status of a construction site may be updated daily with a drone flyover, for example.

Whether it comes from reality capture or embedded sensors, that up-to-date data is fundamental to the digital twin’s usefulness. “The iTwin is living and changing right along with the physical asset,” said Klatzkin.

Users of Bentley’s ProjectWise Connect Edition can reportedly employ iTwin Services for any project, and adopting iTwin Services “is not disruptive to your current business processes,” Klatzkin affirmed. iModelHub creates and maintains the iModel for the project, and the ContextShare service maintains updated digital context for the physical site. These digital components and context are merged through Navigator Web, which enables browser-based review of 3D models, and iModel.js, a new tool library that is “the engine for the digital twin service,” Keith Bentley said. 

“We don’t think of the iModel as being the digital twin,” Keith clarified. Rather, he continued, a digital twin is “a service of connections, of information systems … the digital twin will become an information system that you will connect to.”

Building on the Base of iTwin Services

With the new iTwin Services offering, Bentley is “creating the platform for the world’s infrastructure digital twins,” Klatzkin explained, and also for the creation of new solutions. “Accessibility is a key tenet of this platform … this is an open ecosystem for innovation,” said Klatzkin.

In collaboration with Siemens, Bentley Systems introduced PlantSight, a new range of digital twin cloud services specifically for process plants. “PlantSight is a great example of a solution built on iTwin Services,” said Klatzkin. To enable performance modeling of industrial plant assets, PlantSight incorporates Bentley’s AssetWise asset performance management with Siemens’ MindSphere and Teamcenter solutions. 

iModel.js and the Importance of Openness

About 10 years ago, open-source software started being taken more seriously, Keith Bentley related. It made the transition to the mainstream thanks to companies such as Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Uber: “They create lots of software, but they don’t sell software,” he explained.

“To make open-source software valuable, you have to create an ecosystem, and it takes work,” Keith Bentley continued. “Making something open source is a tremendous, long-term commitment.” The benefit of working within such an ecosystem is that when two tools have been made in the same software, “it’s so easy to snap things together,” he said, using the analogy of magnets. “The [more open], the better — open wins.”

To that end, Bentley Systems is forming its own such ecosystem to support the creation of iTwins, based on JavaScript, “the most popular programming environment in the world,” Keith Bentley said. “JavaScript is the only language today that is cross-platform,” because it runs in a web browser, he explained. The new open-source iModel.js is not a “tiny toolkit,” he said, but a substantial JavaScript library containing tools for creating immersive, long-term connections: “It’s basically what Bentley uses to create our tools.” He called iModel.js “a watershed for Bentley Systems” and enthused, “I’m very excited about what other people can now do with their data.”

Preparing for Twin Cities and Managed Twins

Bentley Systems’ plans for becoming “the infrastructure digital twin company” don’t end with these developments. The company also announced the acquisition of Agency9, a Sweden-based provider of city-scale digital twin cloud services for city planning and related web-based 3D visualization.

In addition, a new strategic partnership with Atos, a “digital transformation” company, is intended to yield “a complete solution to create and operate digital twins on behalf of industry and infrastructure asset owners.” This cloud-based service will provide businesses with the option of fully integrated and managed digital twins, with real-time performance monitoring and analysis, as well as remote operation of assets.

Availability of iTwin Services

Bentley Systems is currently in discussion with companies interested in becoming early adopters of iTwin Services, which will become generally available early next year on a quarterly subscription program. “You subscribe for each iTwin, and only pay as you use it,” said Klatzkin. Charges will be based on the scale of each iTwin. He explained that access can be granted to employees, contractors, consultants, and anyone else, as the customer sees fit.

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