2016 Infrastructure Industry Outlook
Each year, the Informed Infrastructure editorial team reaches out to members of its Editorial Advisory Board to take the pulse across civil and structural engineering practice. The board includes a diverse range of practitioners with a wealth of experience in project and technology development. They’re all vested in the “new path” that model-based design is forging for improved practice, and this yearly exercise taps into their thoughts and gauges progress.
In the following outlook, we hope you’ll gain some insights and ideas to inform your own practice. We’ve asked questions related to each individual’s experience and endeavored to provide a broad range of perspectives. The goal was to represent current trends as well as forecasts for what the next five years will hold.
The dialog ranged across good business practice, the impact of government mandates, technology advancements, the importance of resilience, the need for a paradigm shift to address aging infrastructure and the importance of inspiring young leaders to enter engineering fields where they can make an impact.
This printed version represents a summary of thoughts that were edited and compiled from a greater whole. Readers can dive more deeply into the thoughts and ideas of our board through the text of each individual interview that have been transcribed and presented online.
Terry D. Bennett, LS, LPF, MRICS, ENV SP, LEED AP, senior industry strategist for civil infrastructure, Autodesk
A Digital Mirror
One of the things that we’re really starting to get to rapidly is the full realization of a digital mirror of the physical world. We’re now seeing that every piece of software and hardware is pretty much tied together, with the lines between hardware and software blurring.
Whether its sensors or survey equipment, they all have a massive software component to them. As these digital and physical worlds become deeply intertwined, these things are so well connected now that they are starting to connect to each other. This ability allows one system to pull information from others for simulation, visualization or analysis.
There are a couple of great examples. The first is reality computing that rapidly captures the physical world with scanners, drones and satellite imagery and models in 3D almost as rapidly. The ultimate delivery is digital information of that physical environment. Being able to fly things, model them in 3D, and then turn them around and use that BIM model for planning, visualization, simulation and analysis of design alternatives or even asset management can now be done in days and sometimes hours, depending on the complexity of the project.
Sensing and Monitoring
Embedded sensors are creating a connected infrastructure boom with 50-70 billion connected devices in the Internet of Things. It’s not interesting that we have sensors, but it is interesting where that takes us.
When these sensors become a reality, our infrastructure world really wakes up. It becomes alive with real-time feedback. Today, the Internet of Things talks mostly about sensors and actuators, and maybe protocols and connections of information and capture.
We can soon start to design with those sensors in mind, thinking about the information we need to capture from the physical environment that we can then incorporate through feedback loops into maintenance plans or designs of the future. This will make infrastructure more predictable, and, in a very strange sense, we will know how our infrastructure feels and what is happening based on stressor events or use or lack of use by the public.
Cloud-based tools also allow us to understand the impact of design, like triple-bottom-line analysis of social, environment and economic impacts. This allows you to do risk-based analysis to compare and understand alternatives through the lifecycle for short- and long-term impacts.
Private equity is very diligent on how it makes a business case for investment. Engineers and architects traditionally haven’t be able to innovate, because we have little proof. That’s why a sustainable triple-bottom-line analysis provides a critical input to understand the correct combination of needed infrastructure projects and supplement that with what the government can provide.
We need to start leveraging more-modern tools, analytics and innovative approaches to not just build like we did 50 years ago. We can think of new ways to tackle today’s problems sustainably and not just take yesterday’s problems and try to build to those again today.
Dan Burden, Ph.D., PE, senior associate, Wade Trim
Modeling for Understanding
Mathematical and empirical models play a vital role in water management, whether that’s water treatment, wastewater treatment or stormwater. Particularly in wastewater, we see time and again that if you need to optimize on the process side, mathematical models are imperative to optimizing the process. That’s particularly true with large regional treatment facilities; e.g where modeling can be used to assess clarifier improvements (CFD modeling) or process improvements (Biowin).
Spreadsheet models have become commonplace in more recent years for asset management. These models provide decision-making tools can can assist municipal governments and utility directors where monies should be spent for capital improvements or renewal and replacement projects. These models allow them to prioritize projects based on empirical data rather than emotion.
New Water Sources
Due to the short supply, we’re seeing stormwater and wastewater as a potential water source. Indirect and direct potable reuse now is becoming a commonplace alternative in our industry.
Ten years ago, the theory was being talked about, and now we’re seeing projects that are being planned and implemented. One of the biggest projects implemented to date is in Big Springs, Texas, where they’re taking wastewater and converting it for potable use.
I think our nation’s problem with aging infrastructure is so big that I’m not even sure that our government is capable of addressing the problem without having an enormous amount of capital funding unlike any time we’ve seen in our country’s history. It’s going to come with a price.
In order to complete the infrastructure improvements that are needed, a paradigm shift is needed because we can’t continue the current pace and expect to make progress without getting further and further behind. In order for large capital improvement projects to move forward, they have to be funded either locally, statewide and federally. That funding usually comes with a catch, meaning the public needs to be educated and they have to be willing to share in the cost.
As we look forward, I think the shortage of engineers across the country needs to be addressed. If you look at wastewater, it’s a combination of both the science (biology, chemistry, physics) and engineering fields (electrical, structural, mechanical, or civil) engineering. If we’re going to address the problem with aging infrastructure, we will need more engineers to help solve the problem.
A focus has to be placed on getting more middle school and high school students interested in the engineering field. Engineering is a profession where an individual can make an impact in the community which was one of the main reasons why I chose this profession. I believe that’s a great message to send to students today.
Philip Christensen, vice president, Offshore & Optioneering, Bentley Systems
Design with Options
We’re working to make it easier to apply simulation earlier in the design process. Simulation is used in several ways. If it’s a familiar project type, they may start out with a general arrangement, build a model, and continue down the design road, using analysis to validate the model and make sure it complies with appropriate requirements and regulations. There may be a bit of fine-tuning involved; for example, changing some structural sizes or making some other performance-oriented tweaks. But, at that point, it is too late to make changes generally, so analysis becomes a validation tool.
The trend is for analysis and simulation to move earlier in the design process, and the mechanical engineering world is ahead of other disciplines in that respect. Overall, the AEC world is beginning to use simulation earlier in the process, before the detailed model is built. Using analysis and simulation earlier in the process enables the design team to come up with the best alternative before it is too late to change things.
Without a doubt the biggest change to our business is the emergence of cloud computing. If you look at the basic capabilities of a computer, it can compute, store, and communicate. Most of the discussion you hear about the cloud is about the storage and communication end of it. For the analysis and simulation group, the compute part is interesting, because when you have unlimited scalability in the cloud, then your computing resources really change the game. You can have 100 or 1,000 computers available.
As software applications become user-friendly, and local desktop performance and data structures improve, it is now becoming easier for people to create models of higher fidelity, which includes more detail and a more accurate representation of the real world. And, as the models become more detailed, you increase the compute time. Therefore, having a more-scalable compute capacity to apply to those more-detailed models is not only desirable but becoming necessary.
Extending to the Field
One of the more interesting areas that we’re exploring is how to access analysis and simulation results in the field. If you’re simulating pipe flow or HVAC flow, it’s possible that you would be mixing in computed analysis results and gathered results from sensors in the field.
In the future, this mashup of generated-vs.-gathered data is an area where mobile devices for information access in the field will be invaluable for decision support in an operational context. Seeing the status of things while in the field will continue to advance. There’s no doubt that in five years, or even less, accessing and updating models in the field will be an everyday practice.
When you have a lot of computing capability, you can generate a lot of data. People describe it as artificial intelligence, but it’s not quite as smart as people think. Mostly, it’s clever algorithms for pattern matching in large datasets.
Microsoft recently released a Machine Learning Service as part of its Azure cloud platform. By using those machine-learning services, we can start performing analytics on the datasets and analysis on the models to find patterns in the data. Users can look at their structures and be alerted when the patterns are outside the norm. For instance, the services can help them determine if their structure is much heavier on the upper floors and other insights like that. That’s an area where machine learning is going to be really useful.
Mike Markovitz, founder and former president, RAM International
Differentiating for Success
If you want to do more than just make a living, you really have to differentiate your business. Engineers are practitioners, and most treat their work more like a profession than a business. They tend to think that good service and good design are going to make their customers come back. Every time their past customers go out and bid, they wonder why they don’t get called upon every time if they have done a good job.
Differentiation is really going “above and beyond” the call of duty and doing things that others can’t do. You have to find your own niche to really make a successful business.
I see differentiation as a means to get to a profitable business. If you’re out there bidding on jobs or are competing on low price, which is the norm in the industry, you’re only making a living. If you want to do better than making a living, you have to provide a lot of value to your customer.
Sharing and Connecting
The big deal right now is the sharing economy. I work with companies that help individuals rent out their tools that might be sitting in their garage unused for 90 percent of the time. There are services now that link owners with those who would like to rent—the Uber ( ride-sharing company) of everything.
I’ve got other companies that you might call crowdsourced. We’re working on aggregating photographers, getting business for them, and then we take a finder’s fee. There are a lot of photographers, similar to engineers, who don’t like the business side. They want to practice the art and execution of the job, and we take care of finding the work, delivering their photos and making sure they get paid.
I have one friend who built a virtual engineering company. He goes out and gets the work, and then farms out the work to people who moonlight to get the work done. It’s an interesting trend, where engineering knowledge and expertise in software is what’s being shared and sold. Virtual engineering companies are probably going to catch on, with a lot more engineers working independently.
Gene V. Roe, Ph.D., PE, PLS, principal, LiDAR News
Lack of Leadership
I have been working closely with transportation agencies here in the United States during the last five years. These groups are certainly not known to be early adopters, but as much as some of the leading transportation organizations would like to change, the inertia is overwhelming.
Contrast this scenario with the Bentley Systems’ Be Inspired Awards, where the leading projects from around the world are showcased each year. All of these are making use of 3D from LiDAR data collections to clash detection and virtualization of design and construction. 4D and 5D models are actually becoming the norm on these world-class projects, as is well-informed lifecycle asset management.
In the end, I think it comes down to leadership. The technology is now affordable by even the smallest group engaged with the built environment. The issue is convincing senior management and owners that they must make the investment in changing the way they do business.
The paradigm shift away from project-centric thinking to managing the lifecycle of physical assets is placing the emphasis on data and information models. This brings up a wealth of new issues, not the least of which is the need for an IT department to design, build and support a centralized database-management system.
A key component of this approach is the need for a unified, integrated database model. Unfortunately, most organizations aren’t even discussing these ideas, and unless they do, we will not see much real improvement by 2020.
Another critical issue holding back the transition to model-based design is the lack of standards. As James Bessen documents in his book, Learning By Doing – The Real Connection Between Innovation, Wages and Wealth, the promise of new technology often requires decades to be realized, because without standards, the potential productivity gains can’t be realized.
Amy Lamb Woods, PE, senior staff, Simpson Gumpertz & Heger
Importance of Preservation
Preservation, rehabilitation, and repair of existing buildings and structures is an option that owner’s consider more strongly when the economy is not robust. Although preservation has been prevalent in the United States for more than a half-century, the teardown and replace mentality is still common. Retaining an existing building illustrates good stewardship to the building and our environment, and can be cost effective.
I think the industry continues to make changes so we move more toward a preservation mindset. We see and experience the signs of global warming. We are seeing impacts on the environment. With each passing year, we pay closer and closer attention to that. We are starting to see codes change and requirements for materials change so that environmental impacts are improved.
Birth to Burial of Materials
The industry is starting to look at the true full-circle birth-to-burial impact of materials. Engineers are not just specifying a material for its durability anymore or looking at when the material “dies” on a building; we’re looking at its use and impact to the environment as a raw material, the process of removal, as well as the impact during production, and when the materials are discarded or recycled when a structure is torn down.
Our future in material selection for new construction will in addition to VOC and chemical levels also include consideration of the life of the product, effects during construction, impact to global warming, forests, wildlife, loss of natural resources, and human effects. That’s a big change from the last 10 years to the next 10 years moving forward. We’re taking a more-holistic approach from birth to burial of a product and its impact to the environment.
I lived and worked in Seattle for a time, and did a lot of work with terra cotta buildings after the 2001 earthquake. During investigations we would identify terra cotta pieces on buildings for repair or replacement depending on the level of damage. We often had to remove undamaged terra cotta pieces to send to the manufacturer to produce new replica pieces. In essence, we had to replace two pieces of terra cotta because the element often was damaged when it was removed and could not be repaired and reused. That’s a really inefficient system.
Now we use the improved technology of laser scanning to document the shape of facade elements digitally and work with manufacturing companies that can create molds from the data. This process eliminates the removal cost, the shipping cost, and the cost of replicating what were good pieces. We’re now starting to use that technology where there are repetitive parts on a building—precast concrete, stone, terra cotta—all the features that can be scanned in place so a replacement piece can be made to match.
It’s much more user-friendly technology than a decade ago, and I hope that continues to improve, so the cost of creating forms or molds and using scanning technology continues to go down. It would be good to see these approaches get into everyday practice.
Offering a Student’s Perspective
Kyle Campbell is a civil engineering student in his junior year at Valparaiso University, offering a fresh take on what he feels the future holds and how he will apply what he has learned when he joins the workforce and engages on projects.
It is true that I possess little experience compared to the practicing engineer, but I see the problems with the infrastructure being used every day that also are no secret to the general public.
In the classroom, much can be learned from the information presented. Theories are memorized, and technical practices are learned, but what about applying these in the field? The methods of practice currently being applied are going to change. How much? One can only estimate.
In 5-10 years, the practicing engineer will have to adapt; this is certain. The design process for different subareas of civil engineering will experience more change than others. In my opinion, the most change will occur in transportation and environmental engineering.
The current transportation infrastructure must be expanded to provide sufficient capacity for today’s demand along with future need. With ever-increasing population rates, more wastewater must be treated, and more air-pollution control will be needed. On the construction site, erosion control and stormwater management will be more regulated.
At Valparaiso University, we are taught to develop the optimal solution based on present environmental, social, political, ethical and health constraints. The engineer of 2025 will need to not only design more-efficient systems, but he or she also will need to fix the world’s engineering-related problems.