Digital engineering is a complex term to define. Roads & Infrastructure sits down with Dave Body, senior industry strategy manager at Bentley Systems, to learn more about the term and how it affects industry.
When googling the definition for “digital engineering”, Dave Body, Senior Industry Strategy Manager – Civil Infrastructure ANZ at Bentley Systems, found 212 million results.
“One definition that resonates is from Transport for New South Wales. By building our assets twice, first virtually and then physically, digital engineering has the power to provide valuable insights, create efficiencies and deliver cost savings to every decision made,” Mr. Body says.
Digital engineering allows companies to create a data model digitally, which represents an asset or objects within an asset, and provides the ability to store information or linked data on each aspect of that asset.
3D models are the most common and comprehensive form of digital engineering, but Mr. Body says it is actually the data behind the model that open the window to opportunity for the industry.
“The data that are associated with the model really does provide a tier for digital engineering,” he says.
With digital engineering, users are able to define spatial and geospatial information as the information associated will create an accurate 3D representation of a project. They can also access and input information on many different parts of a project, such as the concrete that needs to be poured, how much is needed and exactly where it’s needed.
Digital engineering is still quite a new concept for the industry.
“I think in Australia we are in a twilight zone. We’re moving away from the old traditional workflows, processes and technology and we understand we need to shift to this new digital engineering paradigm. However, as an industry we are yet to fully embrace this and are stuck between the old and the new. As such, there is a real opportunity now for industry to make this change now,” Mr. Body says.
He says the industry is starting to talk about other aspects too, such as building information modelling (BIM) and digital twins, which are relatively new terms for the industry.
“At Bentley, we define a digital twin as a digital representation of a physical asset, process or system, as well as the engineering information that allows us to understand and model its performance,” Mr. Body says.
He says, at the end of the day, engineering consultants now understand it is essential to design and create an accurate representation of the asset that is to be constructed in the design process.
The opportunity to create detailed 3D models in design houses creates many benefits in the overall project life cycle.
“A major advantage is the information put into a digital engineering model can be leveraged downstream not only for construction purposes, but for maintenance and operations too,” Mr. Body says.
An example Mr. Body demonstrated was a road design project, specifically focused on the pavement objective. With an asphalt pavement, a digital engineering model can help users to understand where the asphalt was sourced from, its thickness, the temperature it was laid and even more.
“If a road authority needs information about a pavement during its design or construction, or any time in the product delivery life-cycle, they can understand exactly how it was constructed from the digital engineering model,” he said.
“For instance, if they start getting failure on the pavement, they can link it back to perhaps a construction method, or a specific temperature or where it was sourced from. The customer can then identify other parts of the road network that may have the same set of data.”
This allows for investigation of where future failure may occur in the near term with the data capture at the start and throughout the project. That data are then captured at the start, and through the project lifecycle can be utilised.
Each discipline involved in the design of a project has the possibility to update a digital engineering model on a regular basis.
“If there is one constant in the design of a project that would be change. With digital engineering the design can always be modified and updated before it is issued for construction. All of the data could then link back to the 3D model of the object or asset that is being constructed,” Mr. Body says.
According to Mr. Body, a McKinsey construction report looking at productivity growth in comparison to the digitisation index in the construction industry saw the industry’s productivity grow less during 2005 and 2014. Out of 13 major industries, construction was at the bottom of the digitisation index.
Bentley, in listening to the needs of the industry, created and recently brought to market a software called iTwin Services.
“It’s really a data centric view of digital engineering and that workflow. It could be a 3D reality model of that particular existing asset. The iTwin Services then allows us to align that information and align the data,” Mr. Body says.
Traditionally, at the design phase, there will be various disciplines working on a major project, and each will add data to certain packages. When the data leave the authoring application, it is sometimes hard to leverage and can be described as “dark data”.
“With iTwin Services, we have found a way to align any data from Bentley-based products, or any other applications, so the integrity of the data is kept, which was authored in the original application. We can then move the data forward without any loss of data or loss of geometric correctness, so accuracy is continuously maintained,” Mr. Body says.
Bentley with iTwin Services connects the data from the authoring applications into a cloud service, called iModelHub. At every stage of a project, iModelHub is updated with and maintains a time-based ledger.
“It allows us to form project status reviews, which are continuously available, and customers are able to roll backwards or forwards to any requested project state on that change ledger in iModelHub. We can use that for visualisation purposes and for analysing any changes that occur on a project timeline status. These are all contained in the 3D model,” Mr. Body says.
Mr. Body says Bentley products are ready at the right time for the industry. He says overall there has been a slow uptake but now the industry is beginning to see requirements from some governments, so the time is right to introduce these technologies.
“From a guidance point of view, Transport for NSW has its digital engineering framework. The Queensland Government is moving toward a BIM related set of principles and will expect all major government construction projects with an estimated capital cost of $50 million or more, to adopt these principles. Other state authorities are set to follow and therefore, government guidance is starting to impose itself on industry and we are starting to see this manifest through employer information requirements,” Mr. Body says.
He believes the construction industry is going through a huge growth period currently and a lack of resources is a well-known issue.
“I think the amount and volume of work currently on the books, combined with the lack of available resources, the traditional ‘business as usual’ approach to large civil infrastructure projects is just not going to cut it anymore.”