Digital twins offer real-time modelling for data centres

Digital twins offer real-time modelling for data centres

Black & Veatch provides insights on digital twin technology and its impact on data centre development, including design, construction, and sustainability

Digital twin technology has gone from a futuristic ideal to a present-day reality for data centre developers and operators. This highly specialised virtual modelling can impact the entire data centre lifecycle, beginning with site due diligence and moving into design and construction, as well as measuring sustainability objectives and creating tools for operational excellence. 

Black & Veatch is using its internal resources to develop real-time modelling for global clients. Digital twin technology eliminates geographical barriers in initial site due diligence and design phases. The entire team can virtually walk the “completed” project without leaving their desks. This provides great convenience, but the real value is evolving. 

Digital twins are not simply simulation tools because they also provide a previously inaccessible depth and breadth of exploration of data. It allows clients to review a project in a virtual world before implementing it and allows developers to sell the project to stakeholders earlier. 

The digital twin can also support operations of the data centre, where monitoring and other tasks are done remotely and the ops officer can review issues from any location to make decisions that have a significant impact on the enterprise.

This report features industry insights from key personnel at Black & Veatch who are invested in its activities and translate the company’s achievements into professional services for its core industries. 

Due diligence insights before a shovel goes into the ground

Digital twin modelling allows clients to design a site even before the land or building is purchased, says Black & Veatch’s Shilpa Maganti and Greg Zalewski

Black & Veatch perform site due diligence for data centres and mission-critical facilities, collaborating with clients to assess greenfield and brownfield sites using the company’s expertise in the power, water, telecom/fibre, environmental and data centre industries. 

The company has the capabili­ty, scalability, and global resources to help clients select sites that will meet future capacity and sustainability requirements. This expedites challenging schedules and gives clients a competitive advantage by leveraging Black & Veatch’s vast global internal resource pool, preferred sub-consultants and long-term relationships with utility providers in major markets worldwide.

“We might have a client who has a piece of land and asks us, ‘Can we build a data centre here?’” explains Shilpa Maganti, Black & Veatch’s Data Centres Project Manager. “At that point, we would look at the site, look at the topography, even the soil conditions. We have to be able to answer the question of whether we can even build at that location.“

“We also need to calculate the civil and structural side issues related to a project – do we need to blast the site? How is the grading going to work?”

Black & Veatch also considers power and utilities during a site due diligence project, including an overview of potential cooling systems and water supplies. 

“Then we move on to other investigations, including the environmental side and master planning. We investigate any environmental impacts. Most of the clients we work with know how large a data centre they're looking to build on that piece of land, so our team works with them to build a master plan.”

Digital twin tech gives real-time understanding of critical issues

Some developer clients may already have their own facilities, which requires Black & Veatch to carry out a facility assessment. 

“Evaluating an existing facility requires more extensive detail. Do we need to make any structural improvements? Are there any permitting or zoning requirements that change the land use, or the use of this building? What are those implications?”

Greg Zalewski, Preconstruction Manager at Black & Veatch, says digital twin technology gives the client a real-time understanding of a broad range of critical issues. 

“And it means you're not waiting for architects and engineers to come back and redraft; you can make a lot of those changes on the fly using that digital model of a digital twin,” says Zalewski. “It doesn't have to be a fully developed model – you can do some very rough block models and get an idea of how it will all work. From there you can visualise what that project will look like and what your facility will be, before you ever put a shovel in the ground.”

Sustainability is crucial for the future of data centres

Global business and society demand data centres – and sustainable designs are the future, says Black & Veatch’s Angie Nygren, Amol Samant and Drew Derrick

Black & Veatch is committed to continuous improvement for clients and communities, so sustainability is ingrained into the company’s strategy. Mitigating and adapting to climate change, decarbonising supply chains, and creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce are just some of the challenges the company is committed to addressing head-on. 

Together with its clients, partners and employees, Black & Veatch’s work designing and building tomorrow's infrastructure plays a powerful role in improving sustainable outcomes.

“Our clients are feeling accountable for sustainability and making sure they have sustainable options in their designs,” says Black & Veatch Architect Angie Nygren. “The need for data centres is not going away, so how can they not feel accountable?”

Black & Veatch Project Manager Amol Samant has also seen a significant increase in the number of conversations around sustainability in his work with clients. Some of the most important factors to consider are water, heating and cooling, and noise pollution, all of which can present challenges for sustainability-minded clients regarding where a data centre can be placed.

“The city centre is where the infrastructures for utilities, like power, are available,” says Samant. ”At the same time, there is a scarcity of water, and we cannot use the huge amount of water required for data centre cooling at the same location.”

A technical “balancing act” to save energy, power and water

This can mean Black & Veatch has to work with the client to perform “a balancing act” to save energy, power and water while still ensuring data centre facilities are optimised.

“We've had a client come to us recently and tell us they want to use air-cooled chillers, which are not necessarily the most efficient cooling option available,” says Black & Veatch Mechanical Engineer Drew Derrick. “But they've made the decision that they want to use cold chillers so they can save water.

“We have that discussion with the client, bringing their requirements and preferences to the forefront. Then we can design a system around their values for sustainability – and that can be an interesting topic of the conversation if the client hasn’t thought of it before.”

Derrick predicts that, in the next decade, the data centre construction industry will see more liquid cooling options – both direct-to-chip or immersion-type technology – but this will require clients to make upfront investments in the technology to reap the rewards of its better functionality over time.

Digital twin technology also allows clients to quickly determine how sustainable their new data centre would be using different materials for construction. “From a rough design of the structural system using different materials, we can pull those quantities and materials from the model and give them a carbon factor,” says Nygren. “Then clients can know whether a concrete structure, a steel structure, or a timber frame might affect the carbon footprint of these different structural systems.”

Digital twins mean clients can design twice, but build once

Data centre virtual models mean contractors can work together with perfect precision, says Black & Veatch’s Angie Nygren, Drew Derrick and Greg Zalewski

Black & Veatch’s integrated design, engineering, and construction approach increases project performance while ensuring cost and schedule certainty for critical infrastructure. As clients’ single point of contract responsibility, Black & Veatch works in a collaborative team to maximise return on investment and deliver projects of the highest value possible. The company’s design-build teams identify and implement creative solutions through a contractor-led, construction-driven model.

“With the 3D fly-throughs we can offer, the client knows what they're getting, knows that operationally it's going to function for them,” says Black & Veatch Architect Angie Nygren. “So, in a sense, we're really designing twice.”

CFD modelling is used to build interior and exterior twins, which allows Black & Veatch to work with clients to fine-tune master plans. “We had a project where the client was using direct evaporative units on the exterior of the building, sucking in large volumes of air,” says Black & Veatch Mechanical Engineering Manager Drew Derrick. “Diesel generators for the project were sitting relatively close. We found that when the generators were on, the exhaust fumes came back into the building. 

“We ran the model and had to extend the stacks, moving the generators a little farther away, so we could make those modifications before it became a problem in the field,” says Derrick. “After you've built it, it’s much more expensive for the client to make that kind of change.

Digital twins do away with “first-come, first-served” approach

A fully coordinated model provides a clear understanding of where systems should be placed, says Greg Zalewski, Preconstruction Manager at Black & Veatch, which didn’t always happen in a time before digital twin technology. “When people weren't coordinating their work, they may not know how they're going to arrange their systems, whether it's electrical conduits or mechanical piping, or sprinklers.”

Digital twin technology does away with this “first-come, first-served” approach, replacing the need for subsequent contractors having to make allowances around the first to start work. 

Clients in different regions may also have very different requirements – for example, Black & Veatch has carried out studies to explore options to recycle data centre cooling water for irrigation or other purposes.

“This is designing twice and building once, because you can coordinate all those systems in the virtual world before you actually get into the field, and then your contractors can build from the model. They know exactly down to the inch where they need to be and how close they should be from one system to the next, and this saves a lot of time in the field.”

Operational intelligence boosts reliability and efficiency

Digital twin technology leverages drones and specialist software to give an overview of operations, says Black & Veatch’s Julia Guerra and Anthony Taylor

Operational intelligence provides insights that help optimise day-to-day operating and maintenance practices to boost reliability and efficiency. This can include important monitoring and diagnosis services that provide a dashboard for clients to see deeply into their systems via the cloud. Adaptive planning focuses on the future, using scenario analysis and predictive analytics to better inform asset management, long-term capital expenditures and other planning decisions.

Black & Veatch also prepares clients with well-defined procedures, such as lock out/tag out and confined space instructions, to optimise day-to-day operations and maintenance. Other services include: preparation of facility-specific operations manuals; process control optimisation and troubleshooting; onsite technical support for completion of facility start-up and commissioning; assessments, including facility operations, of staffing and maintenance; laboratory design and onsite laboratory reviews; and equipment specification development.

“Recently, we've been leaning towards something called DroneDeploy,” says Black & Veatch BIM coordinator Julia Guerra. “This is a very exciting piece of software that very easily shows with one click that a client representative in the field doesn’t need to be an engineer to be able to use a drone. It's about simplicity, scalability, and how everybody can get their hands on it – from the owner to the surveyor or an engineer, it doesn't matter, everybody can use the same data. We’re taking the fear away from drones and simply making it a tool like everything else so that people in the field are just as comfortable using a drone as they might be using a hammer.”

BIM 360 connects workflows, teams, and data for clients and contractor

Black & Veatch’s digital-twin work makes extensive use of BIM 360, part of the Autodesk Construction Cloud designed to connect workflows, teams, and data. This software – along with an extensive line of modules designed to extend and focus functionality – reduces risk, improves quality, and helps deliver projects on time and on budget by predicting safety hazards, proactively managing quality, automating tasks, and reducing rework so that clients can control costs and stay on schedule.

“With BIM 360, not only are you able to have your team on a single platform, you're seeing data throughout the project lifecycle from design to construction,” says Anthony Taylor, BIM Coordinator & Technology Manager in Black & Veatch’s Data Center Group. 

“You have the ability for your clients to see the same data from any device that has Internet service. That could be a computer or a tablet or a phone – as long as there is Internet access, you can access these files anywhere in the world. 

“BIM 360 also has security layers, so if you only want certain roles like project managers or admins to have access to certain folders, it's really great for management and security,” says Taylor. 

3D, 4D and 5D digital models shed new light on construction

Traditional paper plans used by construction contractors have been replaced by digital twin technology, says Black & Veatch’s Angie Nygren and Greg Zalewski

Black & Veatch has been leading the construction industry since its earliest days of building infrastructure in America’s heartlands and worldwide. The company delivers the highest standards of safety, quality and efficiency and adapts its diverse construction solutions to mitigate

risk and suit client budgets.

The company’s construction experience extends across all industries they serve, benefitting from a holistic view of infrastructure lifecycles. Black & Veatch has experience with multiple contracting approaches as a prime contractor, design-builder, construction manager at-risk (CMAR), major subcontractor, joint venture partner, or consortium member. The company also self-performs construction trades as a direct hire, as a construction manager of multiple subcontractors, or a combination of both.

“I'm seeing a couple of trends in digital twins in construction,” says Black & Veatch Architect Angie Nygren. “The first is much more client interaction. Historically, we used to give 2D plans to the client; they would approve the plans, and we would build it, and then it would be something of a surprise when they saw the end result after construction.”

2D plans and drawings are not enough for clients anymore, says the Black & Veatch team, with clients instead calling for 3D and digital twin models. “They want to see the building in three dimensions before we even stick a shovel in the ground,” says Nygren. “The client is going to be the end user, so they want to know things like how are they going to load the racks? How are they going to access the cable tray? Will they have a clear space for a ladder to get to areas that will be required in the future?”

Modelling catches issues long before they become problems

Black & Veatch goes further than this and ensures clients can assess the smallest details, which can then attract interest from other departments such as marketing and brand management. “Clients can discover how the finishes we've chosen interact with their brand,” says Nygren. “How is the flow of the space from break rooms to offices? Increased client interaction means they’re looking for that 3D fly-through.”

This approach to construction means even the smallest efficiencies can be identified or discovered in the digital twin environment. “We model everything,” says Nygren, “so that we know if there's a picture that's going to clash with a duct from our model long before this is an issue in the field.”

Beyond the third dimension, Black & Veatch is also seeing trends extend into the fourth and fifth dimensions of those digital twin models. These take into account not only what the project or product will look like, but also how it looks over time as well as the costs involved in its operations and maintenance.

“While you're evaluating a project, you can look to custom construction sequencing to see how this project is going to be built, and you can look for opportunities there to either accelerate or – if you're considering phasing – how you would implement that throughout the project by using that 4D aspect,” says Greg Zalewski, Preconstruction Manager at Black & Veatch

“On top of that, we're starting to see a lot more focus on the fifth dimension, which is adding cost to that,” he says. “While the fourth dimension takes the model through time, the fifth dimension adds cost to that time factor. From an owner's perspective, you can actually get a very reliable picture of what your capital expenses are going to be throughout the course of that project and how you need to finance and fund it.” 

As digital twin technology becomes the industry standard, data centre owners and operators will benefit from more reliable, efficient and sustainable facilities. Traditional paper plans used by construction contractors have been replaced by digital twins, which allow clients to design a site even before land or buildings are purchased.

Digital models presented in 3D, 4D and 5D will impact not only site due diligence and design, but also construction, budgeting, modernisation and operations. Modelling catches issues long before they become problems and Black & Veatch goes further to ensure clients can assess the smallest details. This can then attract interest from other departments such as marketing and brand management.

Black & Veatch is ever-evolving and leading the industry in applying these tools and technologies to leading-edge data centre development. The company has the capabili­ty, scalability, and global resources to help clients select sites that will meet future capacity and sustainability requirements. 

This expedites challenging schedules and gives clients a competitive advantage by leveraging Black & Veatch’s vast global internal resource pool, preferred sub-consultants and long-term relationships with utility providers in major markets worldwide. 

Black & Veatch
Black & Veatch
Black & Veatch
Black & Veatch