Dan Jurgens, WSP Technical Director, Digital Engineering, looks at how digital engineering is transforming the industry. This article first appeared in Engineering New Zealand’s EG magazine, Issue 7/2019.

With a digital toolset that enables engineers to work in a virtual environment, digital engineering can mean not just better workplace practices but a better country. Our industry is constantly evolving and one of the best examples of how practices are maturing is digital engineering.

As a concept it’s not new, but we’re now at the point where the digital revolution is delivering on the promise of Building Information Modelling, the Internet of Things, augmented and virtual reality, Geographic Information Systems, data analytics and more. In its purest form, digital engineering is the digital toolset that enables us to work in a virtual environment.

It’s how we create, piece by piece, a full digital twin of everything around us – facilities, infrastructure, our environments and how we interact with them. It’s also how we capture this flood of data and turn it into meaningful knowledge for the greater good.

 

Creating smart cities

Last year, I visited the site of the impressive Slussen redevelopment project in Sweden.

The entire urban transformation project is required to produce model-based deliverables, with almost no traditional documentation, hosted in centralised databases. A proper “level 3” Building Information Modelling project. With digital engineering, the methodologies and skill sets enable the convergence of mapping, building, utility and other data into accurate virtual models.

These models effectively create smart cities that have many benefits, including helping reduce waste and improve efficiencies. A good example is energy use, where a network of sensors in buildings cuts energy use and wasted resources by automatically manipulating shades, lights, air conditioners and power sources. Going deeper, facilities are computers themselves, where elements, fixtures and even materials are monitoring and responding to conditions inside and outside the facility.

 

Using data to build better

These connections aren’t limited to facilities. The entire fabric of our infrastructure – including roads, bridges and ports – can report on their health, their life and connect to similar structures in different weather conditions. Together they create live neural networks of correlated data that provides information for the maintenance of a structure.

Furthermore, it builds a database of information for the next generation of more resilient, more sustainable and better structures.

During design, smart virtual objects “know” they must fit together in a certain way when they’re being constructed. The design tool must take that into account and make sure they come together in the same way in the Building Information Model. These objects have a spatial awareness of where they need to be and automatically assess the criteria present to create an optimal layout.

During construction, building elements have smart devices and sensors built into them that determine their performance, transmitting metrics as part of a larger system that manages the signals from all the tagged objects. This data is used to monitor job sites, manage logistics, keep track of materials that have arrived on the job site and monitor their use, determine which building components have already been used in the construction and which are in storage, keep track of personnel flow, manage work assignments and more.

These sensors in the building elements “know” their properties and potential signs of damage, deterioration, incorrect installation or compromises to structural integrity.

 

The future is now

Change is happening so rapidly we all need to embrace it and be a part of this digital revolution. For anyone working in digital engineering, I’d advise starting small: look at your workflows and how

you can digitise them. Consider not only how being fully digital can benefit your business, but what impact you could have on wider society. Look at how you can become a temporary custodian of the knowledge you create, and how you can hand it on to the next part of the supply chain for the greater good of New Zealand.


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