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Water companies and BIM: realising the potential

The utilities sector has lagged behind in implementing BIM, and has yet to fully realise its potential for maintenance as well as for new build, writes Lee McDougall

By Lee McDougall, Director, AHR

Despite the Government mandate on compulsory use of Level 2 BIM for public sector contracts, BIM take up has not been as strong as expected and the utilities sector has particularly lagged behind in exploring its possibilities.

However, increasing competition and consumer awareness means there is a new pressure to make cost efficiencies, whilst protecting rigorous safety standards.

With other routes to cost savings out of the question, operations managers within the water industry will need to consider new ways to make efficiencies. New technologies – especially in combination – can achieve this.

In addition, as a leading supplier of environmental and technical services noted in Water Industry Journal, Resilience and Planned Preventative Maintenance (PPM) is becoming an increasingly popular area of investment for utilities: “What makes PPM a critical part of effective resilience is its ability to prevent issues from growing exponentially behind the scenes before culminating in the form of burst pipes, pollution incidents, or sustained periods of asset downtime.”

Despite its reputation as a tool for new build, BIM and other associated technologies can be particularly useful in working with existing water and wastewater assets.

Laser scanning, for example, easily captures the complex detail of wear and tear which is essential when considering maintenance or improvements.

Individual tools such as BIM are inherently useful, but the real value lies in the combined use of technologies (and of surveying and geospatial methods), with BIM, GIS, CAD, aerial imagery (drones) and laser scanning being used together to provide ever more useful, accurate data.

As one commentator noted on industry trend website Geospatial World: “BIM, in the context of infrastructure design, is about an aggregate of fetching the information and understanding its context in a real-world scenario.”

The benefits of BIM are manifold, from minimising disruption to attracting investment and enhancing stakeholder engagement.

BIM (in conjunction with other technologies) creates efficiencies through a number of means, not least:

1)    More accurate scenario modelling.

2)    Reducing timescales and disruption.

This is particularly valuable when working with existing assets that need to remain in use. For example, the careful and regulated use of drones can eliminate the need for scaffolding or cherry pickers when gathering physical data about assets, making significant time savings and minimising disruption.

Drones are particularly useful in tall or large structures, or where data is needed about inaccessible areas. This accessibility in turn enhances accuracy: a drone can get very close to the fabric of a building, face-on, hence eliminating the parallax effect, and since images are captured well above the human eye line, shadows are also minimised – both of which eliminate distortions.

The true value of this accuracy really comes into play when a drone is used in conjunction with laser scanning. By attributing RGB colour values and ‘draping’ these photographs onto cloud point data, we can tie down the precision of the images to extract highly accurate measurement data.

Adding the use of GIS into the equation also provides contextual information about the location and orientation of an asset – this can lead to valuable insights about, for example, how a given asset is likely to weather.

As well as perceptions that it is best suited to new-build projects, BIM is all too often perceived as being about impressive 3D graphics – while this is true, the crucial fact that these models are embedded with valuable data is often overlooked.

This means that BIM is useful long after a build as a tool for asset management. Knowing the exact location, reference number, maintenance regime and associated costs of a particular valve or pipe is important.

Viewing two sets of data, through both schematics and spreadsheets, can take up an operator’s time. If we now picture both sets of data brought together and accessed from a single point – that is a game changer. In fact, BIM’s use as a ‘3D database’ is possibly its most beneficial aspect.

Finally, while the central point of BIM is that it is data-rich, it remains true that the visuals can be very impressive. As amendments are far simpler to make than with CAD, BIM visuals can be invaluable in attracting investors or engaging stakeholders, as it allows them to see a broad range of possible permutations at the very earliest stages. This gives them more confidence before committing.

With utilities companies increasingly answerable to savvy consumers and, more broadly, with an enormous backlog of infrastructure work to be completed in what is being called a ‘Second Industrial Revolution’, we can no longer be complacent. Just as the likes of Brunel made use of innovation so too must we begin to take advantage of the technological advances available.

http://www.ahr-global.com/

-BIM will be among the topics on the agenda at the WWT Water Industry Asset Management Conference on May 10. For further information and to book your place visit: https://event.wwtonline.co.uk/asset

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