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Project process automation: Improved visibility is key

Project process automation: Improved visibility is key

One of the biggest hurdles in the process of project management in our country is its systematised monitoring, which can actually be powered by software programs and provide better transparency, data and feedback. Liam Speden explains how.

A software solution is only as good as the information that feeds it. This is particularly true in project management and never more so than during the design and construction phases of an infrastructure project.

Systematised monitoring

Effective systematic monitoring requires that each discipline on the infrastructure project team is able to share details about progress and delivery with the project management office (PMO). This is usually a sequence of often overlapping activities that span from initial feasibility studies through the completion of construction. Surveyors need to be able to inform planners of when they will complete the gathering of data; planners need to inform the project design engineers as options are considered and when decisions are made; design engineers must supply construction documentation and quantity orders to the construction engineers, who in turn need to track and maintain the schedule for building and delivering the project to the owner or operator.

In addition to the electronic scheduling that many PMOs use to coordinate these activities, further efficiencies and granularity in monitoring progress can be gained by adopting processes and standards that improve the ease with which information flows through the infrastructure project lifecycle. Access to detailed and timely data about what is due and when, the ability to test and model the construction sequences to check for conflicts, and the ability to prepare the optimum delivery schedule for materials can substantially improve the visibility of the PMO into the current status of the project.

The use of model-based design, epitomised by building information modelling (BIM), provides a number of real benefits across the lifecycle of an infrastructure project. BIM is an intelligent 3D model-based process that provides insight for creating and managing projects faster, more economically, and with less environmental impact. By combining information into a model that evolves from planning through design to construction and on into asset management, engineers can make better informed decisions at each stage of a project, while shortening timeframes, reducing risk, and delivering cost savings through efficiency at all stages of even an ongoing project.

Cost management

BIM can help improve cost management for many processes like change control during design and construction. BIM provides a detailed engineering model that can be used for virtual construction—testing the model for the actual sequence that will be followed to build the actual structure, including positioning of machinery such as cranes and bulldozers and determining when materials need to be onsite. Conflicts can be detected and resolved before construction begins, with further savings in time and reduction of risk. Once construction does begin, the model is kept updated and if any changes are needed—for example, when it is discovered that there are underground water and sewer pipes that had not been previously accounted for—then the virtual design and construction process can be used to modify the design and update the project schedule.

Pre-bidding planning support

The pre-bidding phase, particularly in the case of competitive bidding, is a key area in which software can help both in creating good estimates and exploring the cost-benefit of alternative approaches, but also in communicating those options and considerations to non-technical stakeholders. An important consideration is to get to a level of detail that provides estimating accuracy without needing to invest extensive time and effort in creating a detailed engineering design for each potential option. Planning and conceptual design tools provide project engineers with the ability to quickly create and explore scenarios and prepare initial estimates based on the known data.

For example, a bidder for a highway project may take the original data provided by the contracting agency to prepare an initial assessment of the scope and cost of the project. Using a planning tool, the project engineer might first use survey, environmental, and property data to determine that there are several potential alignments that might be feasible, and what the relative cost could be. Using a preliminary design tool, the engineer could then take those alignments and 3D data and determine a rough cut and fill for each, along with the length and any structures, such as bridges or culverts required. Benchmark values for cost per kilometre and the type of structure are often used during the pre-bidding phase, and this method provides a better determination of actual materials by performing a basic but still effective design activity. The combination of land and property costs and the initial engineering assessment provides a basis for selecting the most likely alignments, which can then be provided to the engineering design team to evolve.

The information can then be modelled using a conceptual design tool that produces high-quality visualisation of each of the proposed options that can also be used to help explain the value of the proposal to non-engineering audiences, such as financiers, government leaders, and members of the public.

As these visualisations are modelled on real project data, they can form part of a compelling story that illustrates the technical aspects of the proposal, backed up by design estimates, but in a form that non-technical experts can more easily understand.

Value addition from automation

The value of adopting a BIM or model-based approach for the planning, design and construction workflows of a project is much greater than simply automating manual processes. Model-based design shifts the emphasis from the traditional linear sequence of activities to a more collaborative, iterative, and transparent design process that facilitates effective communication between the different disciplines involved in the project.

The model-based approach delivers benefits throughout the project lifecycle. More effective evaluation of project alternatives during the feasibility stage can help produce more accurate bids, an improved design process, and the previously mentioned mitigations to risk and cost. Less measurable but equally important benefits include the increased transparency within the project and the improved ability to communicate effectively with senior project stakeholders throughout the project lifecycle.


 In a competitive environment, the ability to produce such compelling proposals and reduce design and construction risk can bear competitive advantage. The investment in adopting BIM and model-based design can pay off through increased competitiveness, efficiency and delivery. For an agency or infrastructure owner, selecting an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contractor that has adopted such a model and can provide greater transparency in the reporting throughout the project lifecycle can help mitigate the risks that relate to less visibility into both the process and progress for constructing and delivering the asset.

Common referent: Capturing data within a common structure and model allows for the easy automation of reports. Most BIM-based tools provide the ability to create reports that track the anticipated schedule and materials that can then be used to compare with actual performance on the project. This provides a common point of reference across the project that each discipline can use in the preparation of their reports.

Project coordination

A critical part of the success of any PPP venture is the coordination and cooperation between partners, including the timely exchange of information. This applies in particular to the planning, design, construction and then operation of the infrastructure being delivered under the partnership. PPPs operate under strict financial controls, meaning that cost and risk management are essential during the design and construction phase, where overruns can burden the operational phase of the PPP and undermine the financial model used to support it. Transferring accurate and detailed data about the assets from the design partner to the construction partner, and then from the construction partner to the operating partner, can further increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the long-term maintenance and management of the infrastructure itself. The “as built” model can live alongside the actual asset, being updated as maintenance takes place and acting as basis on which virtual construction can be explored for any substantial retrofits or extensions.

For a regulated or governed asset, the ability to prepare and submit accurate and verifiable reports during construction and then operations is often a part of the service levels associated with the partnership. Effective investment in information management technologies can help reduce the burden and improve the accuracy in preparing these reports. Many larger PPP projects will also have a diverse group of senior stakeholders who are not experts and where the potential for such technologies to produce meaningful visualisations, such as for a proposed traffic diversion or remedial environmental improvements to natural waterways, can improve communication with both senior stakeholders and the general public.

The author is Product Line Manager, Infrastructure Solutions, Autodesk.

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