The need for infrastructure worldwide is enormous, in both developing nations and in the developed world. According to the World Bank, the detrimental effects of inadequate infrastructure spending in emerging markets and developing economies (EDMEs) affects billions of people, with investment needed of over US$1 trillion per year.

“Over 1.3 billion people—almost 20 percent of the world’s population—still have no access to electricity.  About 768 million people worldwide lack access to clean water; and 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation; 2.8 billion people still cook their food with solid fuels (such as wood); and one billion people live more than two kilometers from an all-weather road,” the World Bank states.

Building all the needed infrastructure requires huge budgets and time. In Australia, the population is expected to grow to 30 million people by 2031, and all systems must be expanded to cope with the growing population. Roads, bridges, water, wastewater, and so on, all must be expanded in short order.

The most current technology tools are critical for streamlining this effort. According to Santanu Das, senior vice president of design modeling for software firm Bentley Systems, Incorporated, Building Information Management (BIM) software can greatly increase coordination among all teams, such as engineering, architecture, electrical, and so on, allowing for distributed engineering, with teams all over the world working on a project.

In previous years, these teams would all be located in the same country, but today that’s not the case.

“Because of global efficiencies, because of telecommunications, internet speed…the world just got a lot smaller; the electrical guy could be in Singapore, the mechanical guy could be in India, the contractor could be from China, and it is virtually impossible to manage this using traditional design practices,” Das said.

BIM software can help to manage distributed projects by keeping all teams connected and able to see the work of the other teams. “In a collaborative design approach, you have to be able to work 24 hours per day,” Das noted. “The data, the integrity and fidelity of the data, must always be up to date.”

That collaboration happens automatically through the BIM program. When the electrical team in China, for example, finishes their work for the day, the changes are logged in the BIM program. The US team then has access to the changes.

“Let’s say the US guys are working on the mechanical equipment, and they’re finding that the changes that the Chinese team did on the electrical side have an effect on the mechanical,” Das said. “They have to reroute some components because there’s some interference, such as a cable tray is going right through where they put some ducting.”

BIM software can also enable information mobility, which is simply the ability to convey to the different disciplines of the project the data that each team is working on. All teams need to convey data to the other teams, but don’t necessarily use the same terminology or formats. Structural engineers may need to communicate specifications with contractors, for example.

“I can’t just give you my engineering drawings and my models as is, because you can’t open them and you won’t understand them,” Das said.

Instead, the BIM program translates the data for the teams, with the exchange of information occurring smoothly and with no data loss, in a way that’s easily traceable. The program also knows the “language” of all the different disciplines and coordinates for each team.

“Whether you’re talking about a piping network in a water treatment plant, or a piping network in an oil and gas plant, or you’re talking about a beam in a metro station, or a beam in a high rise, the program knows what you’re talking about, in what context, and we can use that information to translate it to whatever discipline is looking for it,” Das said.

The translation works for the needs of all stakeholders.

“The software knows how to convert itself from a British pound to a US dollar,” Das said, “Or from French into Japanese. It knows how to convert itself from electrical design information to something that the owner wants, and then the owner can give back information that goes back to the designer.”

Creating new infrastructure often requires appending existing structures, rather than building from the ground up. A water treatment plant, for example, might serve five million people now, but need to be drastically larger within three years. Tearing it down and rebuilding is not an option, as its functionality cannot be lost during the construction period.

Appending it requires knowing the as-built structural details, but for older structures, that’s likely to be paper files.

“If you’re lucky, there might be some CAD drawings, but more likely you just have paper. Old files, handwritten sketches, and all that stuff,” Das said.

Creating an as-built model with old methods such as site measurements takes time and introduces errors.

“It’s easy for a home,” Das noted. “You can get a guy to come in and measure out everything, and somebody can input into a CAD model and boom, there you have it. It’s impossible to do that for a billion dollar water treatment facility.”

Instead, other technology tools enable building a digital model based directly on as-built structures. Point cloud is a technology that uses lasers to record dimensions at thousands, even millions, of points in a structure, then create a model. That quantity of data requires massive computing power, though, to become useful, rather than just raw data.

“These things are typically terabytes of data, and they’re not easy to process,” Das said. “You have to bring it into a BIM system and you need to classify things, that this is a pipe, that this thing is a wall.”

Drones are also enabling more efficient infrastructure creation. Taking photos from drones is cheap, fast, and efficient. Photos are then stitched together into what is called a reality mesh. This 3D representation enables building of the model in a fraction of the time it used to take.

“What used to take thousands and thousands of hours for someone to go through a bunch of paper and recreate that model, now can be done in a matter of days,” Das said.

These technology approaches are also more accurate.

“When you do a LIDAR, when you do a photograph, photos don’t lie, point clouds don’t lie, it is what it is,” Das said. “Whereas with a tape measure, you could miss something, and obviously there’s going to be human errors involved there.”