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Bentley Systems, the infrastructure engineering software giant, launched phase 2 of the infrastructure metaverse at its Year in Infrastructure conference in London. This new phase includes many enhancements intended to bridge gaps between data processes in information technology (IT), operational technology (OT) and engineering technology (ET). It also significantly improves the handoff across infrastructure projects’ design, construction and operation workflows.
The essential vision is to help infrastructure companies evolve from using workflows built on documents and files to a more nimble, actionable and precise “data-centric” approach. This builds on Bentley’s years of experience with its iTwin platform, launched in 2018 with seven years of planning before that.
Bentley CTO Keith Bentley stressed that these enhancements were designed to augment rather than replace existing tools. Engineers could continue to use their existing tools, workflows and processes and then bring in new digital twin capabilities as appropriate. The idea is to provide a path toward the future.
Bentley has been instrumental in pioneering several infrastructure-related developments. One is a new data model for infrastructure digital twins. Another is a data schema for describing infrastructure. And a third is an approach to storing all digital twin data on top of an SQLite database. This differs from other cross-industry digital twin efforts like Nvidia’s Omniverse, built on the USD format. However, Bentley is committed to interoperability with Omniverse, gaming platforms like Epic Unreal and Unity, and industrial metaverse giants like Siemens.
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Improving data-sharing capabilities
Bentley is launching several new capabilities on the iTwin platform to extend the scope and interoperability of infrastructure data:
iTwin Experience provides a single pane of glass for overlaying IT, OT and ET data to help users visualize, query and analyze infrastructure data in its full context. It takes advantage of Bentley’s work on the 3D Fast Transfer (3DFT) codec for streaming 3D data.
iTwin Capture helps teams automatically capture and analyze reality data from cameras, lidar sensors, drones and satellite imagery. This replaces Bentley’s ContextCapture. It uses advanced AI techniques such as Neural Radiance Fields (NeRF) to generate high-quality models from a few photos. Adobe is using this new tool as part of its Adobe Substance 3D tool.
iTwin IoT automates processes for acquiring and analyzing IoT data generated by sensors and condition-monitoring devices. This will help teams align sensor measurements associated with physical infrastructure. It will also make it easy to train new algorithms to identify deterioration progression and prioritize repairs.
Integration with Immersive Environments such as Unreal, Unity and Nvidia Omniverse will enable immersive experiences across a wide range of devices. The iTwin platform supports interoperability with USD, glTF, DataSmith and 3DFT. Bentley VP of technology Julien Moutt said, “We are excited to see what our users can achieve by combining such technologies, which are fundamental building blocks of the infrastructure metaverse.”
Connecting infrastructure workflows
In most larger infrastructure projects today, the vast majority of raw data is lost as projects move from the design phase through the construction and operations phases. Bentley has improved iTwin’s integration with ProjectWise for design and planning, Synchro for construction and AssetWise for ongoing operations. Other enhancements include:
- New project portfolio and program management capabilities, which extend the scope for ProjectWise from work-in-progress engineering to full digital delivery.
- 4D Design Review, which allows teams to securely share large complex models, regardless of the authoring tool. They can walk through designs, query model information and analyze embedded property data.
- Advanced Design Validation, which allows teams to perform AI design validation to help them automatically detect engineering problems.
- Components Center, which will help firms create reusable libraries of designs like the software industry does today.
- AssetWise Asset health monitoring solutions, which provide pre-built templates for common industry challenges like monitoring and repairing bridges and dams.
Building the foundation for the infrastructure metaverse
In an interview with VentureBeat at the conference, Keith Bentley said he started thinking about how digital twins might benefit the construction industry in 2011. This was when the aviation and auto industries were starting to integrate computer aided design (CAD), simulation, and product life cycle management (PLM) tools into digital twins. Bentley Systems was already a leader in offering many tools for designing, scheduling and operating large infrastructure projects.
Bentley decided to focus on the data management and integration aspect. Every tool in the industry used its own unique file format, making it hard to move data from one application to the next. He recognized the need for sharing small updates rather than requiring everyone to download the latest large file, which could grow into gigabytes for larger projects.
“The information in those CAD models, we just threw it away, and I thought this was insane,” Bentley explained. “I started thinking about the alternative, which was a database. I was kind of disturbed that a database requires a server and an external connection, and then I discovered SQLite.”
Then his team developed the Bentley Infrastructure Schema to help connect information about the things embedded in digital files. “One of the hardest parts about digital modeling is that things need to have an identity,” he said. “And that means something in the real world, something in the model, and something when it’s related to something else. And all those identifiers are different formats.”
They also invented their iModel format as a kind of “Git for infrastructure information.” This helps enterprises create distributed copies of all the records in a digital twin that are synchronized by sending changes across copies of the digital twin.
“The approval process can now be against the database, not against the individual files,” Bentley said.
Up until now, most automation has involved automating the flow of approvals on documents, using tools for contract lifecycle management. Innovations in connecting engineering approvals to signed datasets will unlock the next wave of digital transformation.
Bentley expects what he calls “Phase 2” of the infrastructure metaverse to last at least another five years. It will also take time for enterprises and governments to figure out how to move from signing documents to datasets and to take advantage of new AI and machine learning capabilities.
“Getting there from here has to be incremental because the Big Bang isn’t gonna happen,” Bentley said. “I don’t care how great the other side of that Big Bang is.”