Public infrastructure development: Optimizing safety and quality across the project lifecycle with engineering lifecycle management

How a software driven digital thread is laying the foundation for public infrastructure

By | 6 minute read | July 23, 2021

Photo Taken In Milan, Italy

Express train standing still on a railway track alongside a platform that has a group of passengers with luggage

Guest blog by IDC blogger: Jeff Hojlo

Much has been written in the press about the condition of public infrastructure in the U.S. and worldwide. Articles highlight that many major roadways, bridges, railways, and tunnels are aging, and some are in critical need of extensive maintenance. As governments at the local, state, and national levels face staggering cost estimates just to maintain existing infrastructure, they also have to address the pressing need for new infrastructure development, driven by shifting demographics, climate change, societal behavior, population growth, and the development of smart cities.

Most large infrastructure projects are a partnership between companies and public agencies, so these challenges span both private and public sectors. All governments must contend with increasing budgetary constraints even as the tax-paying public demands more accountability for the dollars spent on each project. This reality puts an equally painful squeeze on companies that design and build these infrastructure projects, which face declining margins along with increasing pressure to deliver on time and on budget.

The engineering development approach for large public infrastructure projects worldwide is poised for change. Both the public and private sectors are realizing that complex projects can no longer be successfully completed without an engineering platform that enables closed-loop design, development, collaboration, and optimization of public infrastructure.

Challenges: Complexity on multiple fronts
Multiple challenges exist with complex building and public infrastructure projects that create risks that must be mitigated. These challenges arise from the overriding concern for safety and quality in large public infrastructure projects, the significant reliance on sub-contractors and suppliers, and the growing importance of software that manages, monitors, and operates this infrastructure.

Meeting all compliance and regulatory codes is of critical importance. These codes outline what standards the project development and finished project must meet, but they also directly address its quality and safety. A large project might be multi-dimensional, such as a new rail line that travels through a new tunnel, or a rapid transit system that feeds a new airport, so it must be able to meet numerous compliance and regulatory codes. This oversight can be time consuming and prone to error if not designed into the daily project development routine. Errors can be extremely expensive in terms of rework as well as potential penalties.

An equally complex challenge is managing sub-contractors and suppliers. As projects become more complex, the number of sub-contractors and suppliers can growth exponentially. Successfully managing collaboration and communication between all the stakeholders can be the difference between success and failure. Ensuring everyone works with the same updated plan, knows the most current status, and understands what they are responsible for and when is paramount. A breakdown in communication, data access and sharing, or collaboration leads to expensive rework, missed schedules, ordering disruptions, cost overruns, and low team trust and morale.

Software increasingly plays a more significant role in public infrastructure, forcing engineering teams to reevaluate development processes that were designed to facilitate building physical things. Software development is unique when compared to developing mechanical or electrical systems, but it still needs to be fully interlocked and coordinated as part of the overall public infrastructure development process. Most traditional infrastructure projects are done once they are completed, except for their general maintenance. However, the addition of software for connectivity, data analysis, and operation makes many of these development projects more ongoing in nature. Eventually, the software that manages, monitors, and operates this infrastructure will be updated or upgraded. New functions will be introduced that were not in the original design. Such changes could require new integration testing or new regulatory certification. Infrastructure now needs to take a model-based systems engineering (MBSE) approach to enable initial and ongoing modeling, simulation, and testing to ensure quality and safety.

A rapid shift to digital for public infrastructure
In many public infrastructure projects, physical copies of plans are still prevalent media, which limits the sharing of data and its digital use in data analytics, impact analysis, change management, and more. Very few infrastructure projects are establishing a digital foundation or repository where an entire infrastructure project can be represented. This hampers the validation of compliance and regulatory requirements, makes it very challenging to trace select workflows through the project, and increases the difficulty of validation and verification testing.

In some respects, the longevity of public infrastructure projects has led to slower adoption of leading technology in their design and development. Most architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms have virtual design and construction (VDC) groups that use multiple tools to support design; simulation; cost estimating; quantity takeoffs; management of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems; and project management. In public infrastructure projects, however, firms are often constrained by the tools/methods accepted by their government clients.

Most leading AEC firms have adopted building information modeling (BIM) over the past 20+ years. These tools are of great benefit for digitizing physical designs but not for developing software. Software development requires MBSE, which is a process for early design, simulation, and prototyping of a holistic infrastructure model that includes software. As software becomes a more critical infrastructure element, the lack of a comprehensive MBSE process that includes software design, development, and testing becomes a significant issue. Most BIM and construction management systems do not have extensive capability to manage the development and modeling of software for infrastructure, because it hasn’t been necessary. But this is changing.

Laying the foundation for public infrastructure digital engineering
Data analysis that drives digital (application) and physical innovation within infrastructure is an ongoing issue during initial design and ongoing operation. Most AEC organizations haven’t evolved their data strategy to the point where they can quickly consume the massive amounts of data collected through the engineering lifecycle and connected infrastructure and apply it for engineering benefit. A cloud-based platform for engineering lifecycle management (ELM) must be in place for the global engineering team to enable rapid collaboration and innovation.

The digital thread established within the ELM process helps ensure high-performing infrastructure that is safe and well built. Using a mash-up of Internet of Things (IoT), AI, and machine learning (ML) technologies, ELM enables a closed-loop feed of data, analytics, and optimization for proactive and predictive maintenance and repair, as well as rapid engineering change.

This digital foundation or platform connects engineering and application life cycles while it provides visibility across the entire infrastructure lifecycle, making engineering data fully transparent and traceable for design, development, and quality assurance. Stakeholders can feel confident that they are working with the same information, innovation and engineering change is expedited, and collaboration and communication happens naturally and iteratively. This approach results in an optimal initial design process that leads to safe and well-operated infrastructure that is of the highest quality and safety, and inspires public confidence.

Message from the Sponsor
One of the leading solutions that provides a digital foundation for engineering development helping many of the largest engineering companies successfully compete in today’s marketplace is IBM Engineering Lifecycle Management (ELM). ELM is designed for adaptability and leverages the industry standard OSLC specification for data exchange. So, ELM not only provides the digital foundation needed to manage today’s increasingly complex projects but ‘future proofs’ your development environment with built in connectivity capability.