Categories:Innovation

The future of the Facilities Manager: How are digital twins transforming the profession as we know it?

PostedWillow Team

Facilities management roles traditionally centre around building services management, ensuring buildings are operating, maintained, and compliant. With technology continuing to transform the commercial real estate industry, the role of facilities management is evolving.

With developments in the Internet of Things (IoT) driving smart building adoption, real assets and even cities are becoming more intelligent and highly automated, comprising of multiple, versatile control systems. These advances are being developed to help facilities managers operate their assets more effectively.

Previously, some have viewed field facilities management as a more hands-on career with fewer requirements to be tech-savvy. However, with the rise of technology, and with tenants and occupants expecting more building capabilities, it’s clear that the role is evolving into a multi-channel position, encompassing aspects of IT and HR. As a result, facilities managers will need to look to systems that enable them to manage multiple, disparate data sets into one source of truth and use that data to help drive decision making.

The transformation has just begun. But what exactly is changing, and how will this affect facilities managers in the future?

The current challenges faced by Facilities Managers  

The facilities management profession is complex and multi-faceted. Each day, facilities managers need to understand and overcome different challenges, some of which include:

Fragmented and siloed data: IoT devices have been integrated into commercial buildings and infrastructure for a couple of decades now. It is hard to put an exact figure on it, but the number of IoT connected devices is now counted in tens of billions and predicted to jump to over 25 billion by 2030.1

A problem faced by facilities managers is that a lot of these devices and equipment components are controlled by proprietary software packages provided and maintained by equipment vendors. This is frequently on purpose, as the vendors are incentivised to exclude third parties from accessing their data to preserve and protect long-term maintenance contracts.

The vendors proprietary interfaces and access mean datasets are fragmented, leading to siloed information. Differing digital languages and proprietary schema make it harder to connect assets and devices to see the larger picture or aggregate data. This situation is exacerbated further by varying protocols from asset to asset and also in different locations.

A lack of real-time data: Another issue that facilities managers face is a lack of real-time data. For facilities managers, it is essential to have a complete understanding of building systems such as plumbing, fire protection, energy use, air quality, equipment functions and maintenance levels, however they often find the information they need is inaccessible or out of date.

Facilities managers are often forced to rely on static systems like paper drawings or PDF files rather than dynamic, live representations of what is happening. This often results in having to diagnose problems reactively and with only a limited understanding of the overall issue. As information can be difficult to interpret or access remotely, they are frequently forced to travel to sites to solve problems.

Cybersecurity is now a paramount issue to be managed: Cybersecurity must be front of mind for any facilities manager, as a cyberattack can have a devastating and long-lasting impact on a company’s bottom line, intellectual property and can seriously damage brand reputation. As companies around the world digitise their assets, the attack surface for owners grows. Rather than just integrating or upgrading new software or technology at an ad-hoc and unsecure fashion, owners need a secure and integrated approach to building technology that their facilities managers can work within.

How can digital twins drive the transformation of the facility manager role? 

Digital twins are already a widely known and utilised technology in the manufacturing, logistics, and automotive industries. They are becoming increasingly popular with the rise of smart buildings as they solve many of the traditional issues faced by stakeholders such as facilities managers and engineers.

Digital twins can solve the data challenges for facilities managers by bringing disparate information silos together and enabling operators to see and analyse everything happening with a building’s systems.

The application of virtual modelling in digital twin facility management software adds an extra dimension to more traditional 3D Building Information Modelling (BIM) by showing problems in context through a live digital representation of the asset. This comprehensive model means stakeholders such as planners, owners, and facilities managers can immediately identify faults, anticipate future risks, and undertake predictive maintenance – one of the leading reasons for digital twin application.

Using IoT and digital twins in facility management is estimated to generate up to a 20% reduction in both energy and maintenance costs.2

The ability to pull real-time records and compare them to historical readings makes it possible to determine maintenance needs with greater accuracy. This avoids potential failures and downtime.

Digital twins can also help operators recognise when an asset is wearing down or requires attention and can flag the issue. There is also the ability to run simulations and test various approaches to predict problems or even improve the life cycle of an asset.

Another significant advantage of digital twins is the time that is saved. Traditionally, facilities managers have had to learn operations and maintenance routines, while specifications and histories were stored in local computer drives, paper folders, or even in their heads. With a digital twin, all the assets and related information are always at the user’s fingertips. This removes the risk of lost data while improving efficiency, reducing training costs, and consequently, saving money.

Digital twins also save time by providing access to information from all site areas. This removes unnecessary travel, optimises operations, and allows facilities managers to service buildings more effectively.

As the profession becomes more technology-based, what should facilities managers know and prepare for in the future? 

Advances in digital twins and the technology that powers them allow for increasingly innovative applications. Self-maintaining facilities with autonomous monitoring and live network statuses will connect with management systems and give alerts for problem assets while identifying equipment needed to fix issues.

Intelligent buildings filled with linked sensors will learn the behavioural patterns of tenants. As a result, they will be able to adjust lighting, heat, and temperature preference more efficiently. This will improve power usage, making buildings more eco-friendly and save money.

It sounds like a lot of sudden significant changes. However, as Daniel Porragas, a Senior Smart Buildings Technology Manager at Willow points out, the adoption of this technology can be gradual. “There is no fixed way to start on your digital twin journey. A digital twin can be built from IoT/BMS data and expand onto other systems; it is about understanding the customer’s current needs and how they tie with their long-term digital strategy.”

These adjustments and changes will not spell the end of the facility management profession. On the contrary, as more systems and data are added to the model, the facilities manager and team will play a crucial role in diagnosing and fixing problems.

The role may be changing, but Daniel explains the positives for those in the profession. “Given the right tools, facilities management professionals will become a central and fundamental role not only in operations but across real estate companies. They can now, using digital twins, measure, demonstrate, articulate and share; ideas, strategies and answers that otherwise were limited to empirical knowledge and expertise.”

The difference will be that much of the work will be preventative and may go completely unnoticed by building tenants. The job will simply continue to evolve, driven by technology, and facilities managers will need to adapt, upskill, and learn new specialties. Technologies like digital twins are completely transforming how buildings are operated, monitored, and maintained, and those who are successful in adjusting their skillsets to reflect these new processes will continue to thrive.

1 Source: Statista (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1183457/iot-connected-devices-worldwide/)
2 Source: Predictive Maintenance Strategy for Building Operations: A Better Approach, Schneider Electric

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