How is today's tech changing what clients can expect from their engineering and construction partners?
Technology is moving at a pace that is well beyond Moore’s law—the idea that computing capacity doubles every 2 years—and prices are falling dramatically. To illustrate, consider transistors and grains of rice. Transistors are now being produced at a greater rate in the world than grains of rice consumed. For the price of about seven 5-pound bags of rice (150,000 grains each), you can purchase a 16GB flash drive made of 128 billion transistors. Do the math and you find out that you can buy 125,000 transistors for the cost of a single grain of rice (Fortune 500
The availability and low price of this kind of technology is changing how we design, construct and operate infrastructure assets. Because transistors and sensors are now widely available and affordable, we have the capability to collect and analyze data in a way that was never possible before. If you are operating a large, complex plant today, you can easily collect data from all your assets and continually analyze how your overall system is performing, as well as the individual pieces. Beyond that, you can model future operational scenarios to avoid problems or seamlessly accept upgrades and changes. Using data, we can save time and money while preventing shut downs.
How can clients use this real-time data collection and analysis to positively affect their ongoing projects?
It is interesting to see something that has already occurred, but is it not more impactful to see something while it is occurring, or before it has occurred? The new advancements we are seeing allow clients to affect all aspects of their operations before they cause issues and demand capital to resolve them. With real-time analytics, we can take action well ahead of time to get clients the greatest economic outcome. Another key is to not only analyze the information retrieved by sensors and systems, but also to understand how other external, independent factors, such as weather, may be affecting operations. We want to help our clients understand the granularity of which factors are having the greatest impact and prioritize where they should invest their time and capital.
How can clients change their approach to technology to leverage these advances?
The key questions for our clients with embedded aging assets are: How do I free up capital to reinvest in the replacement of an asset? How do I make it better and what are the possibilities? A first step is freeing up capacity for innovation and advancement, and working toward incremental improvements. I look at innovation on three levels: Incremental—making the small, yet impactful changes to improve business. Consistent innovation at this level is important to keep costs driving down and your facilities current; Sustaining—a step above incremental, this type gives you results that are undeniably “new and improved” and may bring you a competitive edge for a time; and Disruptive—the truly dramatic type of change that transforms an industry and approaches business and operations in a completely new way.
There should be focus on all three. To get to disruptive, dramatic changes, you need to identify those incremental and sustaining enhancements that will free up dollars and capacity.
Can owners and operators rest assured that an investment in new technologies will come at a reasonable cost? How big of an investment is needed to achieve positive results?
The good news is that the costs of technology are plummeting. Until recently, hardware was typically the prohibitive cost for owners and operators—having to maintain significant space for infrastructure that stored data. The cloud has eliminated that issue, and rates for storing data have decreased dramatically in just the past year. As mentioned earlier, the costs of sensors have lowered dramatically, giving clients information in real-time to inform decision-making and future capital expenditures. I believe the biggest cost factor moving forward will be the people needed to deal with all the great data we can collect—processing it, interpreting it and making decisions based around predictive models.
What exciting new technologies are coming to market that clients should be excited about?
We are getting hands-on with really exciting technologies that are coming into the market, like Microsoft’s Hololens, the first fully untethered holographic computing headset that lets you experience high-definition holograms within your physical, real-world environment. We are learning how these tools can support more collaborative, iterative optioneering with clients well before any designs are built. With the cost of sensors coming down so dramatically, we are also incorporating them more into our designs to give clients real-time insight into how their facilities are operating.
What is the biggest technological game-changer coming that will enhance client operations?
Holographic tools will transform our industry. As built environments get more and more complex, we will not be able to afford time for troubleshooting issues, transporting and training staff or even operations. These new tools will facilitate instant “taptic” feedback throughout the project lifecycle without requiring the entire project team to be onsite. For example, during design an operator could be shown a virtual control room and before anything is built and react to it: “This won’t work there, it needs to go here.” With the drag of a finger, the design can be updated without designer and operator being in the same physical location. This new level of collaboration will increase efficiency and reduce construction costs due to fewer change orders.