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Interview with Dr Bola Abisogun OBE, CEO of the Digital Twin Skills Academy: “The ‘installer’ is the last line of defence”

The terms ‘digital twin’ and the ‘golden thread’ have become buzzwords in the construction industry in recent years, but what do they really mean for people on the ground? To find out more about digital twins, the golden thread and the role of the installer in relation to the two, we spoke to Dr Bola Abisogun OBE, Chief Excitement Officer at the Digital Twin Skills Academy.

Dr Bola Abisogun OBE, Chief Excitement Officer at the Digital Twin Skills Academy

Can you start by telling us what a digital twin is and how it feeds into the golden thread?
People often think that a digital twin is just a binary technology – it isn’t. In many ways a digital twin is simply a ‘data-driven’ virtual representation of a system, asset or process that allows you to understand related information without ‘prior knowledge’ of that system, asset or process. It could be the IoT sensor on a bus that provides a live update to a timetable screen, or a complex 5D model of an entire building and all its integrated systems.

The golden thread involves keeping a digital record of crucial building information – starting from the design phase and continuing throughout the building’s life cycle. The government has decided that the golden thread of a building’s information must be stored digitally, but this can be on multiple systems. The golden thread comprises two parts: building (construction) work, and maintenance. This ensures that any modifications or enhancements to the building are accurately documented, and enables building owners to proactively identify potential risks or hazards and take corrective action.

In terms of construction, the digital footprint of a building contained within the twin crucially acts as a detailed, chronological record, providing the traceability required by the golden thread to demonstrate that the correct processes and materials, as specified, are installed in the proper way.

What role do digital twins and the golden thread play in delivering the requirements of the Building Safety Act?
The key to delivering the Building Safety Act is traceability and accountability. In a post Grenfell world, you as an installer, designer, developer or property owner [aka the Accountable Person] need to be able to prove you did your due diligence and carried out your role within the construction process in a competent and professional manner. In short, you must be able to demonstrate the golden thread to the requisite third party, including the Building Safety Regulator.

Seven years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the inquiry is still ongoing because all the necessary information about the tower’s retrofit construction project that led to and caused the fire is either unstructured or unobtainable. If a digital twin had been created – during the pre-construction phase – then all that information would have been inputted before the project ever progressed onto site – effectively and comprehensively removing the need for an inquiry. A digital twin streamlines the documentation and risk management process and enables you [or the Accountable Person] to easily demonstrate your accountability if needed.

With the end of the transition period for the Building Safety Act fast approaching, do you think the construction industry is ready to implement it?
Put simply, no I don’t. The industry as it stands does not have the skills to implement the necessary change – that’s the problem we are trying to tackle at the Digital Twin Skills Academy.

However, the problem goes deeper than that. I have no doubt that digital twin technology, should it be implemented on a widespread basis, would provide a momentous shift in the way the industry operates and make compliance with the regulations seamless. The issue is not the capability of the technology, it is the attitudes of the people who should be implementing it.

The construction sector is renowned for being slow on the uptake, but I think many people do not understand how demanding these regulations are and they are fearful of the traceability that is inherent in digital twin technology. As a result, we are woefully equipped to deliver the structural changes required, even though from October 2024, and potentially subject to ongoing secondary legislation, the Act will be mandated by law.

What role does the installer play?
In the battle to raise industry standards, the installer is the last line of defence. They are the final person in the construction chain who can raise concerns about a development’s safety before it’s too late.

The Grenfell Inquiry demonstrated that when something goes wrong, everyone involved is culpable – the building owners, the product manufactures and even the installers. As a result, it is in the installer’s interest to ensure they are competent to undertake the work and ask questions about the work they are being asked to do. This should include understanding the suitability of the products they are utilising and implementing adequate record keeping, demonstrating that they have carried out the job to the highest standard.

It is worth noting that installers and SMEs don’t necessarily need digital twin software to make the change in their delivery processes. If you’re documenting your suppliers, installation works, and all other directly involved processes digitally, then you have the foundation layer to demonstrate and evidence your contribution should, God forbid, you need to in a tragic event or other serous incident.

For many installers I talk to, upholding the golden thread is a matter of pride. It allows them to demonstrate a job well done, prove their skill and proudly display the care they take with their work. I think the installer plays a crucial role in generating the change needed within and across the industry.

How can installers get involved in delivering the golden thread?
The most important thing an installer can do is ask questions. It’s only by questioning people that the accountability the industry needs is going to be created.

Installers need to be making sure they understand the various (building) safety regulations and how they are implicated should they install something that isn’t safe. It’s as much about self-preservation as it is the preservation of everyone else.

That is why I’m keen to attend and support the InstallerSHOW this year to meet tradespeople and have those discussions, as it’s only by having these conversations that we can hope to make people aware of the challenges and the role they can play in implementing industry-wide change.

 

To find out more about digital twins and the role of the Digital Twin Skills Academy, visit: www.digitaltwinskills.academy
To find out more about the Golden Thread, visit: https://buildingsafety.campaign.gov.uk/making-buildings-safer/building-safety-regulator-news/understanding-the-golden-thread/

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