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Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure: connections, options & tech

15532662409_821250e8f6_zBentley’s Year in Infrastructure (YII) Conference is a 4-day extravaganza of AEC (Architecture, Engineering and Construction), civil engineering, plant design, offshore structures — literally the stuff that makes our world. Some of the best projects in infrastructure were highlighted in presentations from 54 finalists in the Be Inspired competition. We also heard from Prof. Andrew McNaughton, Technical Director HS2 Ltd, how Britain views its high-speed rail future and from Ed Merrow, Founder and President of Independent Project Analysis, Inc. (IPA) about how the construction industry can become more innovative. Sprinkle in presentations and meetings with Bentley colleagues, and it’s a very full 4 days.

Rather than try to do something chronological or pattered in some other way, I thought I’d give my highlights, now that I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on it all. In no particular order,

  1. AEC may be more connected than discreet manufacturing. AEC projects take place in the office, with suppliers and partners, on the job site and with far-flung stakeholders, all of whom need to weigh in on design decisions, approve budgets, deal with permits, submittals and all the other transactions … People long ago found ad hoc methods for dealing with these handoffs and collaboration points; it often didn’t work consistently but was the best available. At the 2014 Year in Infrastructure conference, Bentley announced the next generation of its products, CONNECT Edition. Keeping the same file format (crucial for an industry where a project may take a decade in design alone), CONNECT Edition versions of MicroStation, ProjectWise, AssetWise, Open Plant et al. will encompass the cloud, mobility and software enhancements that let workers do their jobs where it makes the most sense that day, always accessing the latest, most correct information about the project. CONNECT Edition will roll out across the brands through 2015 and 2016.
  2. But AEC isn’t sold on CAD-in-the-cloud. Yet. CEO Greg Bentley said the company isn’t working on a cloud-based MicroStation offering since customers aren’t really asking for it — they’re thinking about work packages, workflows and where cloud access makes sense. Right now, said Mr. Bentley, the cloud serves as a connection platform — in other words, collaboration, data management, coordination, storage and serving.
  3. Openness can’t be oversold. AEC projects are often huge, with hundreds of designers, suppliers, contractors, regulators and others that often rely on their favorite software to do their jobs most efficiently. No matter what software vendors would prefer, it’s a heterogeneous world, and these systems must communicate with one another or they’re rendered nearly useless as people manually re-enter data. (That still happens. What a waste.) Bentley’s i-models are gaining traction as the neutral “container” for many different types of project information. One spectacular case was Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, Ltd., one of the Be Inspired Finalists, where the i-model includes radiation data to enable the safe dismantling of Japan’s fleet of nuclear power plants. The container concept is strong, and is going to grow as teams need to share more information, much of it not CAD-based.
  4. New technologies need new ways of doing business. A couple of years ago, Bentley announced that its largest customers could pool licenses, to make it easier to shift them around to meet fluctuating workloads and task requirements. At this event, the company announced that this was moving forward again, as it introduced the ideas of Playlists and Playbooks. Playlists are role-based sets of software applications, training and other pertinent information for that person’s job. Playbooks are project-specific and will include software,  project-specific workspaces, and may include cloud-provisioned catalogs of components and specifications. One project manager I spoke likes the idea of Playlists for his team that pre-defined software versions, required training and lays out many of the project parameters — before anyone begins on the job, as a way to quick-start their involvement.
  5. Construction is the next frontier in faster, better, more agile. You wouldn’t think it’s possible, since construction is the intersection of millions of details from design and procurement with the reality of a hole in the ground. But it’s been identified again and again as the least efficient part of most AEC projects. Just one data point: only 1/3 of the time a worker spends on the construction site is actual, direct work* — the rest is wasted waiting for equipment or lost due to late starts/early stops because of miscues or otherwise issues. To address this, Bentley and Trimble Navigation announced an initiative to collaborate on construction modeling, creating techniques to control cost and schedule by ensuring that materials are delivered on time, work planning is accurate, instructions are clear and up-to-date — all so that no workers are idle, no material is sitting too long before it is needed, and that temporary works are staged correctly. Practically, this means the companies are pooling resources for product development and sharing schemas across design and construction applications to encourage projects to use the same models from design through construction (no more manual re-entry); leveraging i-models to improve communication between their applications; and working to create or further standards where that is the best solution. In discreet manufacturing terms, they’re trying to de-bottleneck the construction part of AEC projects.
  6. Get ready. Emerging visual technologies will change how we all work. By now, almost everyone in AEC has heard of (and many are using) laser scanning to quickly assess the in-service condition of their assets. What’s new is the combination of scanning, photogrammetry and big data to rapidly serve up augmented reality: Imagine a utility crew, digging up a road and using a tablet to overlay plans on the real-world to avoid hitting a gas main. That’s great but not enough, since subterranean objects move around, so add in ground-penetrating radar to get up-to-the-minute information. Or say that you work on a construction site. Today, when you show up for work, your ID is scanned and you’re logged in. Tomorrow, the site may be instrumented to such an extent that you show up, are noted as present, get your work order digitally on a tablet that guides you to the correct location on-site, tells you what material to pull and monitors your progress. The Bentley Research team presented these coming technologies and more –they’re concepts right now, so no timelines for released products– that are tantalizing about the world of work in 5, 10, 20 years.
  7. Optioneering is the next big thing. In the discreet world, we’ve long talked of variants, design space exploration and other ways to look, quickly, at possible alternative solutions to a particular problem. Ideally early in the process, before too many decisions are locked in, design teams let their imaginations roam to explore what the customer wants and needs, and how a design can be most attractive to its target market. In AEC, that’s been hard to do because locating parking spaces on a lot, for example, doesn’t have the physics constraints of sizing a turbine blade, but many of the decision criteria can be quantified. Bentley is expanding the optioneering capability it gained in the SITEOPS acquisition to other AEC-specific design explorations. This is serious big number crunching; SIPTEOPS can evaluate options that take into account local codes, the cost of placing utilities and many other variables to meet the site planner’s criteria. I know Bentley’s working on optioneering for pipe routing and mine design, and possibly in other areas as well.

Bottom line: Bentley Systems is, at this point, so big that it’s hard to take it all in. Over 100 products, thousands of colleagues, dozens of end-markets. One very clear overarching message is that Bentley aims to be the company that customers want to do business with — by being flexible (while remaining profitable) in their licensing, open in their architecture, and forward-thinking in their technology roadmaps. One of my take-aways from the event is Greg Bentley explaining the concept of “app-lification”, the idea that the desktop application and mobile app of Bentley Navigator, for example, will have the same experience. “Uniquely, it’s the same code, the same environment — we’ve done this right.”

I know a lot of you are fans of Bentley’s SACS, Moses and Maxsurf (the offshore and marine design products). I spent a lot of time with power users and the Bentley team and will write separately about that when there’s time.

Note: Bentley Systems graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation at the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.

Image courtesy of Bentley Systems. The Flickr album for the Year in Infrastructure 2014 is here.

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