How do we shift a lumbering beast like infrastructure engineering into the digital economy – and why should we want to, asks Michael Salvato?
The traditional remit for engineering is quite narrow. We were only ever tasked with delivering ‘function’ from the thing we designed. Responsibility for ‘services’ lies outside the engineer’s traditional scope. Take a water pump, as a simple example. The function of the pump is to remove water. The service that it provides is keeping the city streets from flooding. But the management of that pump, and the services it provides, was left to the owner. The engineer had long since moved on.
This siloed arrangement is inefficient in terms of lifecycle cost. The pump is at the mercy of both mechanical failure and human error, which can lead to poor service and waste. By embedding the information and processes associated with lifecycle management into the pump design, we can create a cyber-physical asset that is better able to fulfil both functional and service requirements at the same time.
The integration of digital and physical enables two important things: One is creation of a virtual model or ‘digital twin’ that can be used variously to show the condition and performance of the physical counterpart in real time, to inspect it over time, or to simulate possible future scenarios. Through hardware and software which gather, exchange, analyse and mage information, the digital and physical twins are linked. In the case of the pump, information about its current location, condition and status combined with data from related systems enables it to switch on and off at the optimal moment, using just enough energy to get the job done right. At every step, labour, materials, energy and cost are being substituted with digital information.
Connecting grey and green
For the engineering profession, this shift into the digital economy will present new opportunities to move up the value chain. But it will take a different mindset to make it work. We're moving into to a world where designing socio-technical systems is more important than simply designing engineered assets.
For generations, engineers have been breaking the natural world down and then building it back up to create new things, that are not always in sync with natural systems. We haven’t always looked at the bigger picture. Instead of designing a pump that reacts to flooding, wouldn’t it be better to manage water resources so that the streets don’t flood in the first place? Of course, this means taking a more sympathetic view of the natural environment. The engineering of our grey infrastructure needs to converge more synergistically with the green infrastructure of Mother Earth.
Change with the challenge
Think how this changes the role of engineers. A hundred years ago, the priority task in London was to build sewers to improve human sanitation. The priority task today is to improve the sewers so that the wastewater doesn’t contaminate the River Thames, a source of drinking water and a major civic amenity. Infrastructure engineers, managers and developers can lead the way in revealing and strengthening the fault lines in the modern world, which risk widening with the onset of climate change, overpopulation and resource shortage.
Seriously connected thinking is required to assess the vulnerabilities and interdependencies in our supply chains, asset systems and institutional arrangements, because resilience is only as strong as the weakest link. As engineers, we must widen our perspective from technical functions to life-sustaining services, and from physical assets to socio-technical systems, and wider still into the systems of systems, both grey and green.
Increasingly, ‘enterprise systems engineering’ will be a key capability for asset intensive organisations. An enterprise is a complex, socio-technical system that comprises interdependent resources of people, information, and technology that must interact to fulfil a common mission. Systems engineering focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their lifecycles. I see CSE – chief systems engineering – as an important role within asset organisations, guiding the convergence of the digital, physical and natural worlds in the fourth industrial revolution, currently under way.
Enterprise systems engineering calls for more engineers who can mobilise both the right and left side of the brain, to gain an appreciation of the whole. The future of our cities and planet will depend on it.