28 October, 2014 | By Mark Hansford
Bentley Systems chief executive Greg Bentley has a clear view of the future role of engineers in the infrastructure community and the firms they work for. And it’s not as number-crunchers or site supervisors, working for firms that only design and build infrastructure.
No, future engineers are information managers and analysts, working for firms that design, build, operate and maintain infrastructure.
It’s in no way a belittling of what engineers to date have set themselves up to do; it’s simple recognition of the way things are going to be done in the future.
“Engineering firms are going into the information management business,” states Bentley. “With advances in offsite construction techniques and virtualised workface planning there will be a worldwide supply chain fabricating and assembling, all enabled through cloud services.
“We will provide a common data environment and software tools to enable project delivery by way of this ‘distributed construction’.
“Engineering firms will provide the rest - including, for asset performance,” he says.
And that, Bentley argues, could - should - be the most valuable part.
“How about seeing engineering as a service? To be the ones responsible and accountable for the uptime of a Metro, or a water treatment works? That has to be a lot better than selling hours,” he says, adding that this is particularly true in a market such as construction where skills are scarce and commoditised.
“If you are only making profit on hours worked, the only way you are going to grow is by growing hours,” he states. “Hours are commoditised and there are cheaper options out there.
“Selling hours is not very sustainable. Selling value is much better,” he says.
Outcome-based contracts are key to this, and UK clients such as the Highways Agency and Network Rail are making the change, says Bentley.
Bentley Systems has a contract to provide asset management services to support the Highways Agency’s Asset Support Contracts and it is about more than providing software. “For us the client is not procuring software per se,” explains Bentley. “What the client wants is asset management not asset management software. So we provide some software, but we also provide people to help the people and the process,” he says.
This approach is not dissimilar to the support that Bentley has offered Crossrail through its building information modelling (BIM) academy, and it has struck a chord with the firm and its boss.
“The client demand for an ‘outcomes-based service’ rather than merely software licenses has been shaking up the software industry, and we’re going to be better for it. Maybe the same will be so of engineering companies,” he observes.
The mindset, then, is engineers as long-term sustainers of infrastructure as opposed to simply designers and builders of it.
It’s with this mindset that Bentley seeks to offer a different perspective on BIM and its various levels.
BIM, as a mandated, government-backed initiative is where all eyes are currently focused and organisational change efforts are being placed.
While Level 2 BIM - where project teams work collaboratively from a central, data-rich model - is reasonably well specified (although no actual standard is yet in place), Level 3 is as yet undefined. Bentley is keen to offer a perspective that he believes moves engineers into that valuable ground of service providers: sustainers of infrastructure throughout its life.
First, for context, Bentley conceptualises the many potential advances in technology and workflow processes as pushing out a frontier arrayed across two axes (see diagram). BIM strategies support better asset performance through increased depth of information modelling on one axis, while also enabling better project performance through extended breadth of information mobility.
It is a very different perspective from the triangular BIM Maturity Diagram, first published by BIM pioneers Mervyn Richards and Mark Bew in 2008.
So how does it work?
In Bentley’s world - and as illustrated on his new diagram - BIM Level 1 is about design modelling and focuses on 3D visualisation to consistently communicate and document designs, reducing errors.
In Level 2 - collaborative BIM - advancements and benefits expand to deliver performance improvements in two key areas.
At Level 2, optioneering captures the potential of deeper information modelling to simulate a design’s performance, to the extent of assessing trade-offs across disciplines and systems, in terms of cost, time, efficiency, and constructability (see diagram). In effect, the design is enriched by way of analytical modelling, which predicts asset performance — for example, anticipated operating pressures at various nodes in a piping network for potable water supply.
Level 2 advances
At the same time, Level 2 BIM advances enhance project delivery by broadening information mobility through construction — and throughout extended teams spanning procurement, fabrication, and sitework. For their purposes, construction modelling adds in temporary structures like scaffolding and formwork, and detailed construction specifications and sequences not explicitly modelled in the design — including, for example, the as-built configuration of conduits, gas pipes, and reinforcing elements within a wall.
In both Level 2 cases, it turns out that Level 1 design modelling contributes substantially toward optioneering and project delivery benefits. Or as Bentley says: “It’s not about parachuting into Level 2 or even Level 3, it is using Level 1 as a foundation to get more out of what you do.”
But, says Bentley, Level 2 is just the start. A much greater magnitude of BIM returns comes with the aspiration for Level 3 performance during infrastructure’s operations lifecycle.
In Bentley’s Level 3 vision, assets and their components are networked and connected within their physical environment, providing feedback for operational controls, maintenance, and safety. In effect, beyond visualisation and simulation, Level 3 information modelling enables engineers to make continuous real-time decisions for best performance. The infrastructure asset, connected through real-time sensors to an information-modelledcounterpart, can operate with intelligence.
This is where engineers cease to be offering a commodity product.
“And for Level 3, it again turns out that the virtual environment, cumulatively enriched from Level 1 design modelling and Level 2 analytical modelling and construction modelling, is essential,” says Bentley.
Real time data streaming
For real-time data streaming from embedded sensors in Level 3-connected infrastructure assets, Level 2’s analytical modelling provides the frame of reference needed to support actionable decisions. To start with, observed readings can be compared against the benchmark of Level 2 predicted readings — then the analytical models are permuted systematically until varying design parameters appear to fully account for the differences. This reveals the extent of as-built departures and/or as-operated deterioration with respect to the modelled design, which observed design parameters are in turn analytically modelled to continuously confirm reliability and safety margins.
In the water network example, observed operating pressures, in conjunction with the attendant analytical modelling, yield as-operated design parameters — which, when compared with the actual design modelling, reveal the probable location, and effects, of accumulated corrosion. When this approach is used to expeditiously find and repair underground leaks, yielding savings in water and excavations, and minimising disruptions, the return on design modelling and analytical modelling compound. Going beyond merely real-time monitoring, this reactive intelligence completes the reach for asset performance management.
Information mobility is also enhanced in Level 3 to what Bentley calls “immersion,” leading to breakthroughs in infrastructure asset safety and resilience.
A first responder with a “wearable” display, for instance, could look “through” the building wall to locate those as-built construction-modelled conduits and gas pipes. Not only would this reveal the immediate risks, but also the potential mitigation strategies — through hyperlinked safety procedures. “With immersion, the lifecycle information accumulated and managed through BIM Levels 1, 2 and 3 can become lifesaving,” stresses Bentley.
Bentley is excited, and he thinks UK engineers should be too - although the supplemental skillsets required may be rather different.
“The world will be inherited by the generalists, who will decide when and how we need the specialists. And that is a rarer skill,” he says.
“Those with that skill will be the information managers and a number of our users are already gearing up to fill that gap.
“That is more and more representative of the work of the future,” he says.