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GIS and BIM for Utilities: Bridging the gap between engineering and mapping

GIS and BIM for Utilities - Terry Bennett, Senior Industry Manager, Civil Engineering and Construction, Autodesk
Terry Bennett, Senior Industry Manager, Civil Engineering, and Construction, Autodesk

A combination of BIM and GIS solutions can address the critical need of sustainable water environments across the globe. Senior Industry Manager, Civil Engineering and Construction, Autodesk, Terry Bennett explains how BIM can unlock the valuable data stored in traditional GIS systems to increase the operational efficiency of utility projects

How are location and visualisation technologies helping water utilities keep track of distribution, collection and drainage networks?

Today, after centuries of overuse, repair, retrofits and inconsistent management, we have maxed out the water/wastewater systems already in place and we must rethink and re-envision what we do next to handle the 1.5x global population gain anticipated in the next 35 years.

3D design and modeling tools enable planners, engineers, contractors and owners to explore innovative designs and ‘what-if’ scenarios with project investors to test alternatives and simulate real-world performance. This helps project players to develop a better understanding of scheduling and cost (4D and 5D), assess environmental impacts, and provide the public with accurate visualisations of various stages of the project. In construction, 3D enables the use of automated GPS machine guidance technologies that link 3D models with heavy construction equipment to direct the operation of machinery with tremendous precision and accuracy — expediting construction and getting water and sewer systems into operations quickly. Along with the ability to analyse cost, utilities can also look forward to powerful features that were once out of their reach, including infinite computing and cloud-based analysis delivered to tablet computers and other mobile devices. There is a critical need for sustainable urban water environments around the globe, and the industry needs to evolve to meet this challenge. A complete and accurate water infrastructure model, including not only GIS or geospatial information but also treatment, pumping, and network facility models created using BIM processes, can be used to improve asset decisions, maintenance and customer communications.

GIS had entered the utility enterprise simply as a system for automating map production, but has now evolved into a core-enabling technology. Why is CAD-GIS integration important in a utilities project?

Most of the world’s utility infrastructure was designed using CAD desktop applications and information was converted from CAD to GIS in order to assist in the operations of infrastructure. Traditional CAD drawings lack intelligence because they are designed to produce a paper drawing.

The traditional lifecycle flows through planning, designing, construction, operations and maintenance. Within infrastructure construction, the diverse set of disciplines involved may include infrastructure developers or owners, surveyors, architects, civil and structural engineers, environmental and geotechnical engineers, heating and ventilation specialists, utilities, and road departments of local governments. Different software applications support these participants in the planning, design and construction process. Each discipline has traditionally maintained its own professional standards, and has conducted its work independent from the others. As a result, each discipline has maintained an island or silo of technology related to planning, design and engineering information and the eventual work product and information used for maintenance. The true quality and accuracy of the designs is never really known until the unified construction of the project begins in the field.

Now, with the emergence of building information modeling (BIM) this can change. By leveraging a BIM centric workflow, which is geospatially correct and coordinated, engineers are able to respond to changes faster; optimise designs with analysis, simulation and visualisation; and deliver higher quality construction documentation and eventually as-built models for operations and maintenance.

So that means integration of BIM (building information modelling) and GIS is the future?

BIM allows engineers and contractors to leverage existing GIS information, explore innovative designs and to test alternatives and simulate real-world performance, developing a better understanding of various stages of the project, all while keeping a geospatial context. Urban utility infrastructure, retrofitting and replacement involves a mix of engineering design and geospatial activities that involve short, medium and long duration transactions and that support the planning-design-construction and operations cycle both above and below the ground.  Model-driven design (BIM) with geospatial underpinnings makes it possible to create an intelligent representation of real world object such as a water or sewer network or a highway. Using BIM, the civil engineer can evaluate multiple design options to revitalise urban infrastructure and quickly integrated analysis tools, such as geospatial and stormwater analysis, to come up with a solution that balances environmental impact, social factors, and cost effectiveness, to ensure the desired sustainable outcome.

Additionally, the geospatially accurate and complete BIM model of water utility facilities – whether underground pipes, treatment facilities, or pumping plants – can be used to drive better asset management decisions across the lifecycle of the facilities.

Maintenance management of existing underground water pipelines by municipal agencies is slowly becoming a mainstream activity. Local authorities are looking for accurate ‘As Built’ digital documents that can be used for future Operations & Management (O &M) activities that will deliver highly efficient assets, public safety and predictive replacement models. The integration of 3D BIM models with GIS will allow users to plan, design, construct and manage underground water assets within a single environment that bridges the traditional gap between engineering and mapping.

Autodesk and Pitney Bowes Software, Inc. have entered into a strategic alliance combining the power of GIS with BIM modeling to help utilities and local governments improve decision making across the plan, design, build, manage lifecycle. A tremendous amount of valuable data is locked up in traditional GIS systems. Unlocking that value has the potential for delivering increased operational efficiencies for infrastructure utility projects. The relationship will enable the parties to provide infrastructure professionals in government, utilities, and other key industries with the broadest range of coordinated solutions available today to help fully realise the value of project information. Customers are asking for an integrated solution so that data created in one best-of-breed set of tools can be used for analysis in another best-in-breed set of analytical tools, including geospatial queries across multiple datasets.  This data collaboration greatly eases the overhead and potential for human error in common infrastructure management workflows.  Results can be presented in a more pleasing geographic context while maintaining their underlying design/engineering fidelity.

Which are the future areas of application in this sector according to you?

The lifecycle of infrastructure is being compressed due to economic reality. Owners and operators are concerned about the costs of operating and maintaining these structures and are looking at innovative approaches that reduce complexity and unnecessary redundancy. Over the lifetime of an infrastructure element, these costs tend to comprise 90% of the total cost of ownership.  Economic pressure to reduce overall cost, and therefore to address the large percentage tied up in operating costs, drives owners to look at the opportunities afforded by data and process integration.

Advanced 3D modeling technologies and associated BIM processes stretch infrastructure investment dollars from both public and private sources. It allows investors to gain more accurate, accessible, and actionable insight, to help make better, more informed decisions, accelerate project schedules and reduce project costs while improving project delivery predictability. This approach will help private investors and owners achieve a better understanding of the project risk and business outcomes. They will also be able to respond quickly to project changes while navigating dynamic market conditions and industry headwinds.

With the rise of high definition scanning and reality capture technologies, coupled with BIM workflows and models, sophisticated visualisation, simulation and analysis – we can create new approaches to planning, design, construction and maintenance that allow access to critical water and other infrastructure information at any time, in any location on any device.

With GPS-enabled smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices, one can literally load the models and orient them over a city street and have the utility show up on the screen in a virtual or augmented reality interface. With cloud-based computing and project access, it’s true 3D, rather than guesstimating with a metal detector. One will have high resolution and high precision, and it will be like X-raying into the ground as to where the pipes are installed indicating critical components like age, maintenance history, condition and dependencies with other infrastructure.

What is it that differentiates you from your competitors?

The Autodesk differentiator in the water industry is that our customers use our BIM for Infrastructure solutions for every aspect of the water resources business – watersheds and dams, stormwater facilities, drainage, water treatment facilities, and water and wastewater networks. Our portfolio of products enables preliminary design and planning, stakeholder review, detailed engineering, data management, construction, and modelling of all types of facilities. The Autodesk solutions also provide complete 3D visualisation and analysis, and are used by water system owner/operators as well as the industry’s engineering and construction service providers.