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How did it all get started?

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

The Transport for NSW (TfNSW) Digital Engineering (DE) Framework is a highly acclaimed program of work, that has been universally recognised to be “ground-breaking", "world leading" and a “beacon for the Australian industry". This comprehensive program was a first of its kind, by developing highly technical yet practical components that have enabled true digital transformation of the infrastructure sector.

Over an eight-year period from 2014-2021, I led all aspects of the TfNSW DE Framework Program – from its inception and initial vision, strategic planning and business case approvals, through to policy, resourcing, technical delivery and project implementation.

This is the first article in a series that will cover the story of DE from its early beginnings, its game-changing impacts, how it has developed and evolved over time, and the future direction of DE for our industry.

It all began with BIM..

Our journey began around 2012, at a time when new digital ways of working were beginning to emerge in the infrastructure sector. iPads were still in their infancy, point-cloud laser scanners were appearing more frequently on construction sites and engineering consultants were beginning to experiment with BIM to improve their designs. Innovation with new digital tools and processes was taking-off and it was clear our sector was entering the early-adopter phase of technological change.

The rapid rise of BIM

In many ways, the introduction of BIM was one of the greatest catalysts for change ever-experienced by the construction sector. BIM presented an entirely new vision for delivering capital projects, by providing designers the ability to create fully detailed and data-rich virtual models of their projects. Design packages could now be managed collaboratively in 3D, project staging could be visualised through virtual construction, and owners could experience their new facilities virtually well before site work had begun. BIM was suddenly offering new digital ways of working that were faster, more accurate and more collaborative than ever before.

Many in the BIM community experienced immediate benefits such as improved visualisation, stakeholder engagement and clash detection. Based on these early gains, industry adoption grew and BIM became more common-place on infrastructure projects.

Around this time, practitioners were beginning to consider an expanded role for BIM, that would drive digitalisation and realise benefits over the entire asset lifecycle. The UK had recently announced their Level 2 BIM program to the world and publication of new PAS1192 standards for BIM management were underway. An exciting new vision had emerged, and the conceptual BIM 'circle of life' diagram was appearing more frequently in many forms and forums across the internet.

Reality sets in..

In reality however, things were starting to get tough. Model management on projects was typically limited to a select few experts, while the majority of project team members did not have access to the necessary tools and capabilities to manipulate (or frequently just to view) the models. It was questionable whether BIM was streamlining the design process, or possibly pushing design engineers towards duplicating their efforts across BIM and CAD. And many client organisations were grappling with the basics such as how to specify and procure BIM, in terms of definition and the necessary detail, file formats and deliverables.

Most critically, it was observed in the infrastructure sector that BIM was not successfully integrating with the overall asset lifecycle. BIM adoption was growing rapidly, however there were only limited examples of models actually being re-used beyond single phases of the project lifecycle i.e. concept design models were not considered reliable for re-use in detailed design etc. More importantly, there were virtually no links or integration with existing ways of working - resulting in BIM activities being relegated to the technical few, rather than mass industry adoption.

Through the the introduction of new BIM technologies, our sector had rapidly climbed up the Hype Cycle and was now hitting the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’. BIM presented a significant opportunity for broad industry digitalisation, however there were now signs that perhaps BIM in isolation was not the ‘silver bullet’ that many had hoped.

The rapid introduction of numerous new technologies, a multitude a new file formats and ad-hoc digital processes had also introduced new complexities never before experienced in our sector. The spotlight very quickly moved onto addressing the growing number of emerging challenges such as decentralised information management, advanced data custodianship and the complexities of reliable model assurance - just to name a few.

The sudden gains from using BIM could have been lost just as quickly, if the technological benefits were overshadowed by even greater challenges and costly inefficiencies. BIM had brought us so far, however it was becoming clear this was just the start of a bigger journey for our sector.

The industry was in need of a new vision, that would build on the achievements so far and would address the mounting technically complex issues that were left unresolved by BIM.

The year was now 2014 - and the next stage of our digital journey had just begun.

In the next article, we'll discuss the early concepts of DE - and how they matured to commence the TfNSW DE Framework.

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