Collaboration extends Its reach

The step change occurring in engineering technology is being driven by the latest capabilities of design and operating software to exchange these data.

By Nick Basta

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To make such a system perform at its optimum, Denton says, a large project requires not one central database, but a group of them (for example, one at each engineering office that is working on a project). The databases run their own transaction updating. "We're borrowing technology that was developed during the Internet boom to support e-commerce on the Web," he says. "This is a built-in feature of most commercially available database systems."

Intergraph announced its Engineering Foundation brand for data management several years ago and has been gradually rolling out CAD tools that are compatible with the new structure. Not surprisingly, other CAD vendors are taking the same approach. For instance, Aveva, Cambridge, England, offers the Aveva Vantage system; Bentley Systems, Exton, Pa., provides its ProjectWise system; and CEA Technology, Rotterdam, Netherlands, has its Plant4D system.

The latest development in this area was the acquisition in January of ESSI, Huntsville, Ala., by Bentley. ESSI had been set up as a joint venture between Bechtel and Fluor Corp. Its main product is EWarehouse, a data storage system intended to maintain plant data from conception through the life of the plant. "Integrating design and data warehousing means that data warehousing becomes more cost-effective and broadly used, and the benefits to users -- including EPCs [engineer/procure/construct firms] and owner-operators -- increased proportionately," says Greg Bentley, CEO of the same-named company.


The changing work process

Collaboration is only one of the buzzwords driving this evolution: another is "global worksharing." In either case, the approach is to create a pool of shared expertise and then to assemble the best team, regardless of the location of the specific individuals, to handle project work.

Fluor Corp., Alijo Viejo, Calif., has won industry plaudits for its global worksharing organization. The company has set up a Project Execution Services Group, which manages the overall allocation of resources to projects, notes Peter Moore, general manager, engineering, at Fluor's Houston office. Under that exists a Project Excellence Network, which organizes the functional areas of expertise within the company. A parallel structure is the network of "knowledge communities," which are Internet-based forums in which company experts of various kinds, no matter where they are based, can interact.

"The operative idea here is to leverage our resources," Moore says. Teams assembled for a project from the Excellence Network can focus on a particular project, but remain in touch with each other through the knowledge community. Communities have forum leaders, and their responsibility is to ensure that questions posted within the community receive responses within 24 hours.

Fluor has been rated No. 1 in the engineering construction category of Fortune magazine's "Most Admired Companies." Fluor's managers point to its networked structure as a key factor. "We're no longer just a group of people assigned to various projects," says John McQuary, manager of technology strategy at the firm. "We bring our intellectual capital from across the world to resolve issues in a timely fashion, and to bring the collective wisdom of the company to the table. Our clients will continue to drive us to deliver better, faster and cheaper."


Cross-company borders

These system incompatibilities raise the perennial IT issue of "closed" versus "open" systems and the call for industry-wide standards on data transfer. IT vendors grudgingly have accepted standardization efforts, but also have leapfrogged these efforts by commercializing advances in technology. This seems to be happening right now with regard to standardized file formats. If equipment data are being decomposed to smaller elements, it makes little sense to develop a standard file format.

Intergraph's Denton cites one standardization effort that has moved quickly enough to have an impact on industry practices: the CIMsteel standard for structural steel. "With this standard, we're able to produce a design that can be smoothly transferred to a client for their review, and then to a fabricator for actual construction," he says. The standard is being built into Intergraph's SmartPlant products. Denton concedes that comparable efforts involving electrical or mechanical components of plant designs are "light years" behind the CIMsteel standard.

Bechtel's Choi points to evolving XML standards coming out of the Internet community of software developers. XML provides a broader and more up-to-date method of exchanging data over the Internet, and some programs are already designed to make use of it. XML is a fundamental level of software language rules; vendors in specific markets such as engineering-construction will have to adapt it to their uses (Figure 3).


Figure 3.

Collaboration can go on, of course, outside the realm of data and computer programs. UOP LLC, Des Plaines, Ill., is involved both with IT-related collaborations as well as staffing and work-process collaborations with its clients. In recent months, the company announced alliances with Honeywell Industrial Automation and Control, Phoenix, Ariz., to integrate performance-improvement services with the delivery of control or performance management IT systems. "This will enable our clients to synchronize the delivery of technology systems and refining expertise, thereby allowing them to achieve the elusive 'full value' of their technology investments," says Pedro Fernandez, sales and marketing director, UOP Solutions and Services.

UOP also has a longstanding consulting practice with its clients. The company says that a "truly collaborative" relationship exists between BP and UOP. Under it, UOP provides support, delivery and implementation of technology and services to BP refineries around the world, ranging from process operations to capital planning or technology development. "A very important aspect of this collaboration is that UOP's compensation is tied to BP's success," Fernandez says.

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