Digital technology offers engineering and construction firms, and their clients, such competitive advantage it is no longer optional. So how does an organisation ensure it is digitising in the most effective way?
Consider how optioneering occurs in engineering. Days and sometimes weeks are spent on research to deliver reports on options A, B and C. These options contain assumptions and, by the time they are produced, fast-changing markets have shifted. Chosen pathways may cost more than projected / operate differently / have a less positive outcome for the end user.
Then, consider how that same process works within a system driven by data and operable in real-time.
“Data allows you to figure out, at pace, options A to Z, instead of A, B and C,” says Paul Shepherd-Smith, Operations Director for APAC at Atkins, member of the SNC-Lavalin Group. “Imagine being able to have a robust level of confidence around real-time options. Options that, with a greater use of data and analytics, will allow the performance of social and governance metrics such as social activism, health and wellbeing, inequality, carbon zero etc to me measured ”
In the past, he explains, options typically focussed on a specific factor. Which was cheaper, quicker, less risky?
“Now, you can look at options and compare and contrast suitability across numerous levels,” Shepherd-Smith says. “You can have an immediate view of the environmental impact, of the way design changes will affect the pace of build, of building orientations and their effects on passive shading, heat gain, cooling loads or airflow circulation. All this is in real time as you rotate the building.”
For engineers, the devil has always been in the detail. Certain design aspects seemed an excellent idea until, too far down the track, they weren’t. These outcomes directly affected the clients’ level of confidence around the project itself, and the reputation of the project team.
Technology offers superpowers
This ability to see into the future is just one of the many superpowers offered by technology. Others include:
- Seeing in the dark: Knowing exactly where every project is in real time, rather than waiting for historical reports and project team meetings
- Accurately predicting outcomes: Having the ability to rehearse scenarios via 3D modelling, augmented reality walkthroughs and other experiential methods
- Moving at the speed of thought: Testing with confidence the impacts of changes of design, materials, orientations, etc.
For some engineering businesses these competitive advantages have convinced them to take the technological transformation leap. Most have introduced technology into specific areas of their business. Others are yet to begin.
How then, does every business ensure its chosen technological journey has the desired results – particularly performance and profit?
It’s about people
There was once a fear that data-driven technologies such as AI were all about replacing people. As such technologies have matured, high-performing businesses have instead used technology to enable their people to do higher-value work.
In the above example, technology releases engineers from days or weeks of option analysis, instead allowing them to walk clients through a future-focussed series of design choices, to discover a solution that perfectly meets the client’s needs.
However, despite the powerful benefits of well-implemented technology, the transformation journey can be daunting.
“Sometimes, people try to position technology as a tool or widget that’s going to make everything fantastic. That’s an unrealistic expectation,” Shepherd-Smith says. “Sometimes there’s a slight reluctance because there’s a feeling within the organisation that there’s a degree of digital immaturity. That perception that you’ve got to be at the cutting edge of this journey is not accurate.”
“Actually, successful digital transformation is about people.”
Shepherd-Smith explains that the outcomes of any use of technology must align perfectly with what the end user requires. That’s where the real value is in the transformation journey, he says. To ensure this proper use of technology, Atkins develops ‘personas’ to envision the needs of the end user.
If the project is a sewage treatment plant, the project team first develops a deep understanding of the needs of the plant’s operations manager. What data do they need? What decisions do they need to make?
Or it might be crowd modelling in a railway station, having the ability to do robust modelling of how people will move during peak hour, but also seeing how things might change if there is a fire in one part of the station.
“Once you break down that persona, you get a real sense of where the value is going to sit for the client. Then you can start to think about how you go about setting up the project, about the application of technology to something really useful. That drives dimensional value,” Shepherd-Smith says.
“So, rather than seeing it as digitising a process, the main challenges are instead about people. The digital journey drives us to work in a people-centric way, to produce better quality and more predictable outcomes and, therefore, higher value.”
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