Tim Mumford believes that digital engineering tools can take productivity to the next level.
In Engineers Australia’s recent Future of Transport discussion paper, the authors argue that the use of digital infrastructure solutions will future-proof Australia. However, it’s not simply a matter of plug-and-play. “Greater emphasis is needed on integrating nationally consistent digital approaches to public infrastructure planning and operations,” the authors warn, “if Australia is going to be ready for the demands of the future.”
One engineering leader doing just that is Tim Mumford CPEng EngExec, Business Director – Digital and Innovation at Beca. With a background of working in both business and government, he tells create that “digital engineering is the nirvana we need to head towards.”
“Digital engineering is the integration of structured information into ‘object-oriented’ models,” he says. “These are highly valuable in both the capital and operations phases of an asset’s life.” Mumford stresses that digital engineering isn’t bound by technology but requires a mindset shift to usher in a better way of working.
At present, the industry has only begun the shift into a digitisation phase. “We’ve transferred our paper-based environment to digital representations of the same thing,” he says, “but they retain many of the hallmarks of paper-based processes, in that they’re difficult to search and understand trends, and they’re not dynamic.”
Take, for example, traffic lights on a prospective road project, designed on software that might export to paper or PDF. “To a computer, they’re just lines on paper — it doesn’t know it’s a traffic light,” Mumford says. “The ideal world for digital engineering is one where, if you change anything about that same road, such as its alignment, it automatically moves the light pole with it. Or, you delete the light pole, and it changes the cost estimate.”
While some in the field are already beginning to digitally adapt to this smarter way of working, Mumford urges consistency and acceleration. “From fabricators, to construction managers, to designers, to bureaucrats, to ministers, we all have a role to play,” he says. “The economic benefits are there in black and white.”
A 2022 report commissioned by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Digital Built Britain found that “digital transformation has the potential to both drive down costs in the construction and operation of built assets and drive up quality.” The authors outlined that an effective information management framework leads to direct productivity gains for organisations, increased growth across the wider economy, and social value to customers, society and the environment.
This sentiment was echoed in last year’s Infrastructure Australia roadmap, which stated that “transformational change is needed in how we plan and deliver infrastructure in Australia.” Three of the seven focus areas for reform outlined in the roadmap — systems, digital and collaboration — are all areas in which digital engineering can play a key role.
“If we don’t reform ourselves as an industry, we will get to a natural precipice of governments saying, ‘we can’t afford it’,” Mumford says. He notes that Australia’s infrastructure and construction sector is lagging behind the entire economy, becoming 25 percent less productive over the past 30 years. Worryingly, infrastructure businesses are among the least likely to invest in innovation.
“Our sector is the least digitised in Australia,” he says, lagging behind industries including manufacturing, retail, and even agriculture. The correlation between productivity and adoption of digital is no coincidence. “The entire economy is adopting new and more productive ways of working, but we’re still using paper,” he says, so “it makes total sense that we’re struggling to keep up.”
“We all have a responsibility to think about existential issues in the industry, just like we do for environmental safety, standards and accountability. It’s not something that can be done by committee — we need to seek productivity and progress through education.”
One positive on this front is that governments are recognising the benefits of digital engineering to industry, society and the economy. “Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland have been early adopters,” Mumford says, “and the progress is looking promising.”
Defaulting to digital
Sustaining an industry-wide change to make digital ‘business as usual’ will still take some effort. “The challenge we face is the inherent nature of our sector,” Mumford says. “Projects frequently take over five years, and the people starting the project are often not there at the end.” Driving sustained digital change in this context is hard, Mumford says, but we can learn from other industries.
“Safety became everyone’s responsibility in the 1990s through legislative reforms,” Mumford says. Recalling seeing banners across building site entrances as a young field engineer, such as ‘who are you going to look out for today,’ and ‘everyone goes home safe,’ Mumford believes that this campaign of bringing workers into the accountability process helped change workplace culture. “I remember thinking that safety is my responsibility — and if I don’t drive it, it won’t change,” he says.
This cultural reset is evidenced in the fact that, since the early 2000s, there has been a sustained decline in workplace safety incidents and claims. Mumford says that the industry should take a leaf out of safety’s book when it comes to digital innovation. “There could be a personal accountability model driving digital innovation on an individual level to reverse the productivity issue,” he says.
It could begin with simple steps such as auditing daily tasks and assessing which could be automated, or requesting that information is delivered to you in a more efficient manner. Engineers could also learn a computer coding language, or work with a digital expert in their organisation for advice on which technologies could improve their performance.
While Mumford believes this will improve the productivity decline on an individual basis, organisations also need to consider better ways of working. He points to the legal ‘deliverable’ for many project contracts for thousands of two-dimensional PDF drawings. “Right now, as an industry, we’re creating those documents from 3D models,” he says. “We’re essentially going back a dimension and throwing the 3D model in the bin at the end of the project.”
Many of these two-dimensional drawings are rarely accessed. On one project, Beca found only 10 percent of historical drawings were opened in the 10 years after the project was completed. “Clients often approach us to accelerate projects, and one way in which we’ve been able to halve the timeline is by delivering a ‘model first’ approach,” he says. ”The first time is a learning curve, but after a while, it becomes a new, better normal.”
With all of the risks inherent in major projects, Mumford believes digital engineering can be a kind of “project campfire to join the dots” between siloed departments. “Projects and assets are getting more complex, but I am certain that digital can make our jobs easier,” he says. “I’m excited about what that means for us — not just as a sector, but also as a society.”