Taking a Technology-First Approach to Capital Projects

The use of digital twins can facilitate more accurate budgeting and scheduling
In today’s environment, a technology-first approach to capital projects is essential, says Kat Lord-Levins, Chief Success Officer, Bentley Systems

As digitisation is increasingly expected throughout global industry, we spoke to Kat Lord-Levins about how a technology-first approach can benefit capital projects.

Lord-Levins is Chief Success Officer and SVP for Bentley Systems, where she is responsible for leading the user success team, which strives to meet the business needs of users, build loyalty, and make Bentley their solution of choice. Before joining Bentley, Lord-Levins worked for two decades at Autodesk in several roles, including, most recently, focusing on building and leading the construction business unit customer success team. Prior to Autodesk Lord-Levins worked at Alias Research in Toronto, a software company that produced high-end 3D graphics software. She earned a degree in computer science from the University of Toronto.

Kat Lord-Levins, Chief Success Officer and SVP for Bentley Systems

Why is technology-first important for capital projects?

If you are involved in any stage of infrastructure development or operations, you know how complex and challenging they can be. Some projects naturally face complexities and challenges based on resource constraints, tight timelines, and supply chain delays. But how many of those hurdles are heightened by outdated, manual processes and poorly automated applications that create data silos, inefficiencies, and risks? How many opportunities and benefits do you and your clients miss because you use little to no advanced technology, or less-than-ideal technologies? 

Adopting a technology-first approach to your capital projects can transform the way that you deliver and manage infrastructure assets. Whether you need a connected data environment, virtual reality, or artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, the right digital technology mix can enable change that drives efficiency, effectiveness, and, ultimately, business transformation. Will there be challenges and barriers along the way? Absolutely. However, nothing worth having comes easy. 

For decades, the traditional approach to the infrastructure project lifecycle was linear. Typically, planning, design, procurement, construction, and operations are distinct phases with individual stakeholders, requirements, and discrete hand-offs. 

In general, organisations inconsistently use technology or processes among the phases, creating information silos at each phase. The result is inefficient, fragmented transfers of information between phases. Significant data becomes lost along the way. Information silos create rework, errors, and delays, increasing costs and the risk of mistakes. In recent years, other obstacles such as environmental and sustainability mandates have continued to grow. For example, many states require owners and operators to report on the energy efficiency and carbon footprints of an entire asset. However, when decision-making is done phase by phase, it is tough to optimise and report on an asset’s overall performance.

How can data-driven processes cut project costs?

On the other hand, a technology-first approach is based on digital, integrated, and collaborative processes where each phase of the project is connected and synchronised using technologies that enable data sharing, visualisation, simulation, optimisation, and automation. Data is not recreated in each phase of the asset lifecycle, but rather is handed over seamlessly from one phase to the next for the next set of stakeholders to use. 

This approach saves time and money, and avoids losing data. A more comprehensive data set can drive better insights and improve decision-making, performance, quality, time, cost, safety, and sustainability.

Research by McKinsey & Company indicates that digital technologies can reduce project costs by as much as 45%. The EchoWater Project near Sacramento, California, is a great example of digital technologies making an impact on infrastructure projects. The facility treats 135 million gallons of wastewater per day, removing ammonia and nitrogen to provide safe, reliable, and reusable water for agricultural uses. Coordinating infrastructure upgrades across 22 individual construction projects, while also operating an active wastewater treatment facility, presented major challenges. To control costs, anticipate obstacles, and prevent rates from escalating, the EchoWater Project turned to digital twin technology. The use of digital twins facilitated more accurate budgeting and scheduling, allowing the project to be completed US$400m under budget.

Beyond cost savings, the benefits of a tech-first approach can be seen throughout the infrastructure lifecycle. AI and machine learning techniques used in the design and operations phases will improve engineering and maintenance outcomes. Digital twins and IoT sensory data can help visualise, simulate, and analyse processes such as clash detection and emissions management. Cloud computing and digital processes reduce paperwork, streamline logistics, and tighten inventory controls.

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A good example of how a technology-first approach works across infrastructure stages is WSP Australia’s Southern Alliance Program. The Melbourne-based rail project sought to eliminate more than 100 rail crossings to enhance safety, reduce congestion, increase capacity, and improve travel times. The program relied on digital capabilities to minimise rework and improve efficiency by automatically revising the initial model with subsequent changes. Updated and accurate data improved visualisation, informed decision-making, and reduced risk. WSP Australia reduced modelling times by 60%, increased productivity by 25%, and reduced the project’s carbon footprint by 30% by using precast and prefabricated bridge elements. The company also used digital twin integrations to reduce the quality take-off time from 10 days to two.

How can the associated challenges be overcome?

While a technology-first approach can offer many benefits, it also comes with challenges and barriers to overcome. You will probably need to rethink your business and project model from a phase-based approach to a full asset lifecycle approach that includes all stakeholders. 

Change can be hard, and you should expect that parts of your workforce may be reluctant and resistant to change. Adopting new technologies and processes will cause skill gaps – you should be prepared to address them. Implementing new technologies and platforms may require a significant upfront investment, which may not be easy to justify or secure. You cannot overlook that digital technologies introduce new vulnerabilities and cyber threats that need to be considered and mitigated at all phases and throughout the asset lifecycle to ensure data protection and system integrity. 

None of these challenges are insurmountable. If you are ready to embrace a technology-first approach to your capital projects, here are some steps to get started: 

  • First, evaluate your current processes, applications, and capabilities, and identify the gaps and opportunities for improvement. 
  • Then, establish a clear vision and goals for what you want to achieve with a technology-first approach. How does it align with your business strategy and objectives? 
  • Next, develop a roadmap and plan for how you will implement a technology-first approach, as well as what technologies, resources, and partners you will need. After that, you need to build a business case and secure funding by quantifying the benefits and costs of a technology-first approach. Be sure to demonstrate the value and return on investment to your stakeholders and sponsors. 
  • After stakeholders are convinced, you should engage and educate your workforce on the benefits and expectations of a technology-first approach. Do not forget to provide them with the training and support they need to develop the skills and competencies required. 
  • Finally, you can start with a pilot project to test and validate your technology-first approach and learn from the results. With the pilot complete, scale up and replicate the success across your portfolio and organisation.

In today’s competitive and demanding infrastructure environment, a technology-first approach to capital projects is not a nice-to-have, but a must-have. By using digital technologies and processes, you can deliver and manage infrastructure assets that are faster, cheaper, better, safer, and more sustainable. They can also help you gain a competitive edge and create more value for your firm, your clients, and society. But to succeed, you need to overcome the challenges and barriers that may stand in your way and adopt a collaborative and innovative mindset.

The time to change is now. Are you ready?


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