The evolution of digital engineering and its impact on project delivery

Dave Body, senior industry strategy manager at Bentley Systems.

Whether industry is ready or not, a paradigm shift is in motion. Driven largely by Australian transport authorities, this shift is centred around the adoption and evolution of digital engineering processes, standards, and requirements. In this interview, Roads & Infrastructure editor Tara Hamid sits down with expert Dave Body, senior industry strategy manager at Bentley Systems, to discuss how the digital engineering evolution is going to impact project delivery and what that means for the sector at large.

R&I: To start with an overarching question, could you summate what the digital engineering evolution is and what it means for the roads and infrastructure industry?

The digital engineering evolution is the convergence of various technologies and concepts such as a connected data environment (CDE), reality models, building information modelling (BIM) and digital twins. However, I’m conscious that these are also buzzwords, and that readers might well ask the question ‘what does all that mean?’, so I’m going to break it down and categorise digital engineering into three important aspects.

1. Creation

The first of these is creation. While digital engineering spans the entire lifecycle of an asset, I’m going to focus on the project delivery phase. Within this phase, the digital engineering process requires an effective and accurate creation of digital data – data that represents critical objects of the infrastructure assets.

If we use the example of a concrete bridge, at the time of design it may be represented by an accurate and spatially correct BIM model, but during the same project delivery process there may be a requirement to include a range of other digital data. This meta data or extended attribute data will be associated with the bridge and objects that constitute the bridge, such as the piers, deck or girders. It is any digital data associated to the BIM model that is spatially representing the bridge.

2. Capture

The second important aspect is the capturing of data. The digital engineering process also represents the ability to continually capture and/or append this digital data to the same objects or assets.

Using the same bridge as an example, sensors may be used during the construction and post-construction phases that will capture digital data and meta data about the bridge. This could include information about the location, the bridge’s movement during construction or the performance and condition of the bridge during the operational phase. There is ongoing digital data that needs to be captured and relayed during the lifetime of that asset.

3. Integration and Dissemination

The third is integration and dissemination. While the creating and capturing of digital data is critical, it is imperative that in the digital engineering process, we manage, maintain, federate, and integrate all this digital data into a format that’s easily discoverable and easily digestible by all consumers. And when I say all consumers, I mean that – from the public to the data scientists that need to perform complex analysis.

Again, in the bridge example, Joe Public may wish to view an accurate 3D BIM model of the proposed project but in a real-world context of that area or region, so that digital representation will need to speak to their concerns, which are usually spatial. Whereas on the other end of the scale, a data scientist or engineer may need data in a far more detailed form to analyse the structural integrity of the same bridge.

To summarise, the central tenet of the digital engineering evolution is for industry to be able to create the digital data, to capture it, and then to ensure it can be easily integrated and disseminated to all stakeholders.

R&I: What has influenced this paradigm shift toward digital engineering processes and standards?

The simple answer: governments. This is especially the case with public infrastructure, where government actions are often a direct reaction of a community’s wants and needs. There is increased pressure to spend taxpayer money more efficiently and effectively.

From a digital engineering point of view, that goal can be achieved, as one of its key advantages is to be more effective and efficient across the whole lifecycle of an infrastructure project from its design and construction to the operations and maintenance. The digital engineering approach also includes better communications and collation of information between all stakeholders, as well as improvements to cost estimations and delivery on budget.

R&I: How digital ready are we in the Australian road transport sector?

We’re seeing a lot of improvement in this area. Governments have been progressive in articulating why industry needs to take a digital engineering approach. Now they’re stipulating what it is that they want and need from the sector – which is digital data.

While this is a journey, governments have set us down this path and defined the why. There will likely be some twists and turns as we continue the journey, but there won’t be any U-turns, as the necessity of a digital engineering approach has already been mandated by government.

It’s now largely up to industry players in this sector to define how we create, capture and deliver this digital data in such a form that is easily consumable by all stakeholders and asset owners. Which is essentially the public, the taxpayer.

From Bentley’s point of a view, we’ve started that process and in conjunction with government and industry we’re developing software solutions that address the ‘how’.

R&I: How important is the BIM model?

Talking from the project delivery point of view, it is a central focal point of any infrastructure project, especially a federated BIM model that takes all disciplines into account, whether it is road or utilities, drainage, civil structures, bridges and so on. The BIM model today not only represents a spatially accurate representation of the proposed design but can also act as a direct or indirect portal to a raft of other digital data that is available, which includes the meta data I referred to earlier.

A BIM model can be a precursor to a digital twin, but a digital twin is not exclusive or reliant on a BIM model.

R&I: To clarify, what is the difference between a BIM model and digital twin?

A BIM model is a static view at a certain point in time of the proposed asset whereas a digital twin is a living, virtual representation of the asset over the span of its entire lifecycle.

R&I: What advice do you have for those in this sector when it comes to adopting digital twins?

While I’ve suggested that a BIM model can be a good starting point, when talking to asset owners I often find that they don’t have BIM models of existing assets, therefore raising the question ‘How do I create a digital twin?’.

The key point to make here is that a digital twin is not exclusively created from a BIM model. A digital twin can consist of many layers of digital data, one of which is a reality model, which can be created relatively quickly and at little expense. A reality model can be acquired by laser scanning techniques or digital photogrammetry. For example, to create digital photographs of a bridge, a drone can be deployed that provides that spatial layer of the asset.

In keeping with the bridge example, once that reality model has been created, we can refer to this to monitor the condition of the bridge over time, creating extra digital data during the monitoring period. This further builds up the digital twin with layers of digital information.

There have been some exciting developments in this area. For example, we’re seeing advanced organisations starting to adopt artificial intelligence technology to identify cracking within a bridge structure and to monitor the size of those cracks over a period of time.

Importantly, all this digital data can be used downstream for analysis purposes. And, as we progress in the digital evolution, digital twins will become central requirements throughout the life span of these infrastructure-based assets.

R&I: Can you provide examples of Bentley’s work with road authorities in ensuring software solutions are digital engineering ready or compliant? Could you describe some of the specific areas in which there has been progress?

Certainly. Most transport authorities have begun to implement specific digital engineering requirements into the market. One of those is Transport for NSW (TfNSW), who have been notably progressive in this area.

TfNSW has recently launched the latest version of their digital engineering standard, which comes off the back of a digital engineering framework that’s been in development for years.

This latest standard introduces a lot of extra requirements for those in the project delivery phase including a range of digital data deliverables. Consultants and contractors in industry need to be conscious of that to support it.

As we’re going to see these new standards filter into projects in NSW, Bentley Systems convened a panel in the form of a working group earlier this year. We were fortunate to bring together representatives from TfNSW including engineers from their digital engineering and design teams.

The guiding statement and goal of this group is as follows: To develop a solution that supports the new TfNSW digital engineering standards and deliverables in a way that is effective, efficient, comprehensive and in compliance with TfNSW requirements.

As we’ve made great progress with TfNSW and done a lot of the leg work in this state, I believe it will put us on the front foot to develop in other states. We will be happy to move this working group around to each state, using the NSW group as a starting point and a reference.

R&I: Can you provide project examples where digital twin workflows were successfully employed?

Yes, and while I have been talking a bit about TfNSW, there is one high profile project where a digital twin approach was undertaken that I’d like to highlight. This was the Port of Melbourne Rail Transformation Project (PRTP).

The goal of the PRTP is to provide a rail solution that meets the needs of a growing port, with an aim of reducing truck movements across Victoria, particularly in Melbourne’s inner western suburbs.

The project has recently completed the final design for the planning phase and incorporated five key disciplines: civil infrastructure (including roads), track, utilities, structures (civil structures) and landscaping.

A project challenge was the team’s ability to create and maintain a digital environment that would connect numerous project team members across a number of organisations, allowing for key time savings and greater access to project information.

In this example, Bentley’s ProjectWise 365, integrated with iTwin Services, created a connected data environment that served to foster these key requirements for collaboration and access to information for all stakeholders. They proved to be a single source of truth across key areas, such as design, document control, general issue commentary, safety, BIM, digital engineering and deliverables management. It allowed all users to freely access, visualise and share key information that was continually being updated on a web-based platform.

R&I: To conclude, what would you like readers to take away from this Q&A article?

We mentioned that there is a paradigm shift happening in our industry, and I would like to reiterate that this is truly the case. And change is difficult, particularly as processes have been ingrained for such a long time and projects are perpetually being squeezed on costs and timelines.

However, while it’s taken a while to progress, we’re at a point now where there will be an exponential increase in the requirements around digital engineering and the delivery of digital data around an asset’s lifecycle, including and throughout the project delivery phase.

My advice to those who haven’t thought about how they can support these digital engineering requirements – now is the time to do so.

Also, look around and obtain a detailed understanding of what is expected from you with digital data deliverables and how you can best satisfy these.

Understand what your state requirements are and what you need to deliver because your next project may well require them.

To watch the webinar presented by Dave Body on ‘The digital engineering evolution in roads,’ click here.

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