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Building back…digital

Sweco author: Andrew Krebs, Building Performance Digital Manager

GIS Mapping & Consultant ServicesDigital Engineering is, of course, not a new concept. Engineers have been digitising what they do for decades as emerging electronic technologies became embedded in day-to-day life, and new ways were incrementally discovered and proven to replace manual processes with slightly more automated ones. The transition from drawing boards to CAD is an obvious example. The process remained the same, but digitally-rendered brick by digitally-rendered brick, intelligent engineering systems and smart design tools were plugged into our processes.

Today, digital engineering is taking on a new guise. We are no longer simply replacing manual techniques with electronic ones. Instead, we are looking afresh at the whole process. The focus is now on everything from a built asset’s concept to recycling and using enormous advances in data storage and management to re-imagining the way we do things from the outline conception of a client’s dream through its design, creation, use and ultimately decommissioning of the asset.

We are no longer operating these assets as one homogenous whole, but as a series of interdependent systems which are designed for performance, using real-world and real-time data from existing assets to guide visionary engineers and architects in their quest to create something which truly answers the needs of the modern world.

There is a problem though. Our existing assets are often mute. They cannot tell us how they are operating. They were designed and built using closed systems with little or no ability to connect to the asset operators let-alone inform the engineering fraternity if it is operating as the designers intended.

Designers have been restricted to using rules of thumb, abstract lab data and manufacturers aspirational performance figures to make as informed a guess as possible about how an asset will operate in its unique geospatial environment in ever-changing meteorological, economic and political climates.

Never before has the built environment’s role in addressing climate change been so acutely in the spotlight, never before have we as engineers had such an onus placed upon us to answer these challenges. And never before has the world looked to us with such expectant eyes, waiting for that answer.

Intelligent engineering systems

Without digital design models, digital building and commissioning techniques and smart digital asset management systems we cannot transition from educated guess to evidence-based solutions. We cannot work with a newly occupied building to truly hone it to the occupant’s requirements if we cannot consistently access the data on how that building is performing, how other buildings with similar design characteristics have performed before and how any changes in design alter the real-world outcomes for the occupants and owners of the building.

For example, do we know that a particular type of heating or cooling system actually lowers energy usage in each scenario we put it into? Right now, no we do not. We must simply do our best with the offline data and personal experience we have, to fit the best theoretical solution to the proposed use-case.

Innovating the industry

When we seek to change how we work, we often use trite phrases such as ‘culture change’, ‘systemic change’ or even worse, ‘paradigm shift’ to indicate how big we are thinking, these phrases are deeply unhelpful when it comes to engaging individuals, as they seem only to serve to make the commentator look like they are involved in something big. Digitisation will not happen by re-writing the rulebook and expecting everyone to learn and adopt it. Change, let alone innovation, will not come about through digital specialists like me telling everyone that they are wrong today, and to follow me for a better tomorrow.

Indeed, transformative digital engineering will only come about by engineers being open to exploring new techniques, being willing to put yesterday’s methods to one side in the spirit of enterprise and engaging with each other to ask fundamental questions about why we do what we do. Why do we report designs in plan view when interactive 3D views can be provided even more easily? Why do we insist on prose for our specifications when new tabular reporting tools are enabling greater clarity than ever before? Yes, the old ways feel comfortable because we all learned them together and they are collectively familiar. But we are engineers. Adapting, improving, it’s what we do.

Listen to Andrew’s thoughts on Circularity in the latest New Civil Engineer podcast (from 16m20s) >>

Systemic change cannot be seen at any instant in time. It is only something that can be observed after the event and looking across large time periods. We understand therefore that Sweco needs to have long term progress as the underpinning digital strategy, and it needs to focus its energy and attention on what we can do to improve today’s projects and work with our clients to deliver developments which give us all better outcomes.

Setting digital trends

Much is made of new and various trends. Many will generate a lot of industry noise, but hold limited genuine impact. Others though will have a great impact on how we put digital first:

  • Use of digital twins
  • Zero-drawing projects
  • Smart drawings

Digital twins will give us previously unimaginable insight into how some assets operate and how we can hone their outcomes based upon real-time data and genuine human requirements using machine learning and human intuition.

Zero Drawing projects will give us the option to deliver project designs which can automatically feed into digital construction techniques, and which can present designs to human eyes in dynamic non-traditional but ultimately meaning-rich formats without the constraints of a title-block and line weights.

Smart drawings will give Sweco engineers the ability to relate their designs to their peers in a simple to use but powerful to hold manner, giving clients, site engineers, architects and so on, the ability to view high-quality 3D renders of our design intent on any smart device they can.

Moving forward

The reason Sweco is so holistically digitising how we engineer, the reason we are introducing automation, intelligence and emerging technologies is not to keep up with the latest trends, not to have the shiniest marketing material, and not to show compliance for compliance’s sake. It is because we know that if we want to realise our vision of transforming society together with our clients and our peers, we need to design with this digital foundation at the heart of everything we do.

We are working with our clients to ensure that this reaches beyond the information we create, we are working to embed this digital foundation across the whole of the built environment. Together, with a consistent digital foundation across the built environment Sweco is committed to continuing – and driving – the key, and difficult, conversations around the challenges we all face.