Digital twin technology could help prevent spread of office infections

Rich McEachran

The link between office spaces and health and wellbeing is an inextricable one (Credit: Shutterstock)
The link between office spaces and health and wellbeing is an inextricable one (Credit: Shutterstock)

As companies prepare to ask employees to return to offices, many workers will be mindful of how the workplace contributes to the spread of germs, even though they may have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

The link between office spaces and health and wellbeing is an inextricable one that has been brought into sharper focus thanks to the pandemic. A host of surveys in recent months have emphasised that, post-pandemic, workers are likely to be more productive if their employer places a greater focus on quality, hygiene and cleanliness, and helps to promote well-being. People would be willing to switch jobs in favour of having flexible contracts and healthier working environments. 

In the long term, there will inevitably be big investment from the construction industry in new buildings to meet the increasing demand for spaces that promote health and well-being. For now, though, businesses will need to adapt existing infrastructure and office layouts. 

Improving air flow

Investing in better ventilation doesn’t have to come at a hefty price. There are basic steps that businesses can take. These include opening windows to bring in more outdoor air (this may cause some thermal discomfort for workers in winter) and, in the case of windows that don’t open, installing air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) filters. 

The likes of HEPA filters can reduce the airborne transmission of germs and viruses. However, updating and upgrading ventilation systems alone isn’t enough to protect workers from catching viruses, especially when they’ll be moving around offices multiple times a day. 

For buildings with mechanical ventilation systems, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) recommends starting the system at least an hour before a building is in use and keeping it running for at least an hour at the end of the day, to clean the air, so to speak. As for demand-controlled ventilation systems, the recommendation is to lower the CO2 set point in order to maximise the flow of outside air. 

CIBSE also advises that air should not be recirculated between spaces, meeting rooms and breakout zones that are usually occupied by different sets of people throughout any given working day.

The challenge in regard to that is that many workplaces, particularly in older office blocks that are in need of an upgrade, will probably not have been designed with air circulation in mind. It’s for this reason that Dr Noukhez Ahmed, director and co-founder of Barnsley-based Twin Dynamics, believes businesses need better information in order to make informed decisions about how to make office ventilation as effective as possible.

“Data including the location of ventilation systems to reduce airborne transmission can be used by businesses to adjust their office layouts,” said Ahmed.

Predicting particle dispersion

Ahmed and the firm’s other co-founder are developing a smart airflow analysis system that can predict how respiratory droplets travel through the air in an enclosed space and settle on surfaces. 

Twin Dynamics specialises in digital twin technologies to improve the operational performance of assets, including gas and water systems in the built environment. The Covid-19-inspired smart airflow analysis system is an extension of the firm’s existing digital-twin technology, which gives facilities managers insight into the air flow and heat transfer within buildings. 

Ahmed said that the information provided by the company’s new system will help businesses to understand how their ventilation systems are affecting the recirculation of particles from respiratory droplets. With this information to hand, facilities managers can then rearrange furniture or use temporary walls and partition screens to reduce the risk of cross-infection.

Taking a low-cost, data-driven approach to improving ventilation and air circulation isn’t going to prevent germs and viruses from being spread altogether, but it could be a key part of the mechanics of a post-pandemic working environment. And this should put workers’ minds at ease upon their return to the office.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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