Roads & Infrastructure magazine caught up with InEight Chief Product Officer Brad Barth to talk about project controls platforms and how they help manage large-enterprise infrastructure projects beyond construction phase.
The ‘long game’ is the term InEight uses to describe the operational life of large infrastructure assets beyond their construction phase.
According to Brad Barth, Chief Product Officer at InEight, “It’s really the perfect term for it. Because it recognises the fact that construction is only the beginning for large projects like major tunnels, motorways and bridges. Construction is an intense stage with lots of risk, but then the owners must maintain and operate the assets that were built over a lifecycle that averages 30 to 50 years and can, in some cases, last up to 100 years.”
It is for such large-scale infrastructure projects that Barth believes an integrated project controls platform, such as the solution InEight provides, can offer maximum benefits to asset owners, as well as the other parties involved.
An integrated project controls platform, as he explains, can tie together the scope, cost and schedule of roads and infrastructure projects – the three points of the triangle that define every project’s success.
“From the owners’ perspective, there are many questions that need to be answered long before the contractor gets involved. With a digital approach like the one InEight offers, the owner can connect the three aspects of the project controls triad – which are the scope, the cost and the schedule – to get a better picture of risks during the funding stage. This will then help optimise those factors as the project progresses into design and construction, and later into operation,” he says.
Barth uses the example of asphalt versus concrete pavements to elaborate further. “The asphalt versus concrete pavement argument is a classic example of this. Both options have different profiles in terms of short-term and long-term costs, as well as construction timelines. Also, the raw material prices for both tend to fluctuate all the time. By being able to look at what the current costs for each option are and the long-term implications, including the maintenance costs, asset owners can evaluate the required short-term trade-offs from the cost and schedule perspective to arrive at better decisions.”
Building a history
Another way by which a connected technology platform can help leverage maximum benefits for owners, Barth says, is by building historical data.
“One thing that a digital tool like InEight provides is creating some benchmarking and some history,” he says. “A public owner like a government will have many projects. Each of those projects are of course different from the other, but at the component level, there are similarities across most of those projects. If you can track those at an atomic level, they start to build up a history.
“So, as you are capturing information about the built aspect of the project, you are also continually building benchmarks about that asset that are going to help inform future projects with similar characteristics. So, the tool is not just helping you identify risks and control costs on the asset you’re building, but it’s also helping you gain more knowledge that can be applied on the next asset that has some of those same components.”
And if any changes to the scope, cost or schedule become necessary, the owner’s expectations can be adjusted accordingly.
“Once you lock in what you want to achieve (the scope), then all you are doing is continually measuring everything against the assumptions that went into the plan to see if you have achieved what you expected on all three points in that triad, which helps answer questions like: Did we get the scope that mirrored the design specifications? Did we achieve the cost that we expected? Did we achieve the schedule that we expected?
“Unlike software, which is built digitally in a highly controlled environment, construction projects happen in the physical world. So, there are always going to be unknown situations that need to be accounted for. Be it the weather, site conditions, resource availability…anything can conspire against you achieving your expectations, so you have to continually evaluate expectations and outcomes to know if you are on track or not.”
Narrowing the gap
In May this year, the Grattan Institute published a report revealing that Australia’s transport infrastructure costs are above the global average, with about 25 per cent of projects ending up costing more than the government expected when construction started.
The report, “Megabang for megabucks: driving a harder bargain on megaprojects,” suggested that government-owned infrastructure projects in Australia needed more competition, smarter procurement, and greater transparency.
Barth says there are two ways by which InEight’s portfolio of capital project management software can help enterprises narrow the expectation versus delivery gap. The first, is by getting the risks properly reflected in estimates and schedules.
“I think our industry has recognised that going over budget or over schedule is a common challenge. The way to address this challenge, primarily, is to get more visibility on the risks for the project,” he says.
“A lot of times when you hear any project has gone over budget, the immediate reaction is that the contractor must not have performed very well. Whereas it might come down to the expectations not being realistic in the first place. In the absence of real historical data, human beings tend to plan optimistically. That means we don’t often do a good job, between the owner and the contractor, of identifying what the risks are and incorporating those risks into the budget and into the schedule. With better planning, and better historical data, we can set more realistic targets.”
Next comes better visibility throughout the construction stage, which allows owners and contractors to better course- correct, he adds.
“When you are not in a collaborative digital approach, the owner is often waiting for the contractor to submit a report, maybe once a week if you are lucky, or once a month. So, a lot of times, things that drive the budget or schedule overruns are not identified until you get towards the end of the project and then you have very few options to correct them. Whereas if you’re tracking the assumptions as you go along, not just looking backward at the outcomes, you can then make adjustments to keep the cost and schedule under control while preserving the scope that justified the economic investment in the asset.”
Barth emphasises that having more time to address issues earlier can put more options at the owner’s disposal to keep the project on track. “It also avoids the ripple effect of having to divert funding or resources from other projects to deal with surprises.”
Embracing the Digital Twin concept
An answer to the lack of visibility described above is offered by the digital twin concept, as Barth explains.
Simply put, the digital twin, is a virtual representation of the work being done during and after construction of the asset. It allows a connected data flow of the asset’s information from creation to completion across traditionally siloed teams, providing a timeline of executed work.
“A digital twin facilitates the connection between the virtual world and the physical world. With any construction project, the digital twin essentially becomes the real-time, virtual representation of the physical asset. It serves as a great source of answers to questions related to what has been built, and what is planned to be built.
“What’s more, because the digital twin is virtual, it facilitates simulations and ‘what if?’ scenarios that you can’t do in the physical environment, while providing much of the same context as the real- world environment. So, things that you otherwise might not have realised until you go out into the physical environment, the virtual environment puts that context at your fingertips,” says Barth.
But that only goes part of the way, he adds.
“Being a permanently available replica and record of the physical asset, a digital twin also serves to facilitate easier maintenance over the project lifecycle. What this means for a major infrastructure project is that you can use the InEight digital twin to record all the ongoing changes or even the regular inspections carried out on the project.
“This information can be fed into the digital model as both structured and un- structured data and that’s the beauty of the InEight solution: it’s not a proprietary mechanism. So, we don’t expect everybody that touches the project to be using InEight tools. They might be using other tools and creating information that then gets fed into the digital twin. For example, a specifications document received from a guardrail supplier as a PDF file can become part of the digital twin,
with that document connected directly to the relevant guardrail elements in the 3D model. The important thing is that all the as-built information ends up in one place.”
This is a far cry from how the infrastructure industry has traditionally done things, as Barth notes.
“Previously, if you needed any information about the completed project, you would have to rummage through banker’s boxes full of printed documents, or maybe, if you were lucky, search for the information in a thumb drive that had a whole bunch of PDF files in it.
“But a digital twin gives you all that information in one place, and it’s all connected within the context of the 3D model. So, all of the project’s stakeholders, including the owner, contractors, the inspectors, the material suppliers and the engineers can access the latest data as the project is being built. Then the owner ends up with a digital twin that reflects the as-built information so it can be used throughout the life of the asset.”
With projects like roads and bridges designed to last for generations, the ‘long game’ approach to project planning, with the digital twin as the outcome at the end of construction, paves the way for owners to ensure the successful operation and maintenance of the asset in the future, starting from the present. InEight’s cloud- based software is making this desirable approach a reality today.
This article was originally published in the July edition of our magazine. To read the magazine, click here.