The Global Construction Industry, Whose Annual Spending is about US$2.3 Trillion, is facing serious challenges including global climate change, aging infrastructure, a shrinking workforce and lagging productivity. The design-software industry is investing in new technologies such as building information modeling (BIM), geospatial enabling and 3-D simulation to enable architects, engineers, construction firms, and owners and operators of buildings and infrastructure to address these challenges. Changing the way we design, manage and operate buildings and infrastructure has a direct impact on the utility industry.

ELECTRICAL NEEDS OF BUILDINGS

In the United States alone, buildings account for 68% of total electricity consumption and 38% of total carbon dioxide emissions. Many of our existing buildings and infrastructure will be either replaced or retrofitted to minimize their carbon footprint and environmental impact.

To meet the electrical needs of buildings and bring the U.S. infrastructure up to an acceptable condition, the United States needs to invest $1.6 trillion over the next five years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The ASCE awarded America's energy infrastructure a grade of “D” in its report card three years ago.

Compounding the problem, the average age of the workforce in the utility industry is close to 50. A study by the American Public Power Association predicts that as many as 60% of today's experienced workers will retire by 2010.

NEW DESIGN TECHNOLOGIES

While the utility industry is facing its share of challenges, companies also can take advantage of the new technologies to help them reach their goals.

Most of the world's buildings and infrastructure are designed using CAD desktop applications, but there are other technologies available, including:

  • BIM

    A model-driven design makes it possible to create an intelligent representation of real-world structures such as a building or utility and telecommunications infrastructure. The business drivers for model-driven design are increased efficiency, not only during design and construction, but throughout the life cycle of the structure.

  • Geospatial enabling

    One of the most important trends in IT in the last five years is geospatial enabling. Search engines from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others incorporate geospatial technology. Most of the major relational databases, including Oracle, PostGIS/PostgreSQL, MySQL and Microsoft SQL Server, incorporate spatial data types. Computers, automobiles and cell phones also incorporate GPS technology.

  • 3-D simulation

    UTILITIES IN 3-D

    This technology allows architects to experience a building or highway during the design phase before it is built. Often called digital prototyping, 3-D simulation relies on many of the same 3-D visualization and simulation technologies underlying computer games, and allows architects and engineers to better convey their designs and reduce the risk of major modifications to structures during construction.

Together, these technologies are breaking down the barriers between traditional tools such as CAD and GIS. They not only provide a framework for efficient interoperability across the life cycle of buildings and infrastructure, but they enable the simulation of entire urban environments.

In North America alone, many of the thousands of substations have exceeded their original design life and are now scheduled for rehabilitation. The traditional approach is a time-consuming process using 2-D CAD technology. Leading utilities are turning to 3-D design tools to dramatically speed up and reduce the costs of substation rehabilitation design.

As the power industry strives to reduce its carbon footprint, new technologies will require new design tools, and 3-D technologies are playing an increasingly important role. For example, many people in the power industry foresee an increasing role for nuclear energy. The nuclear industry is already turning to 3-D technologies for improved efficiencies in the design of equipment for this industry.

The data required for simulating entire urban environments already exists in precision digital form, in CAD drawing files, in BIM models, and in utility and telecommunications network infrastructure databases, augmented by traditional geospatial data. These urban models can provide significant benefits for utilities. For example, it has already been shown that a central unified database containing the location of all utility and telecommunications infrastructure can dramatically reduce the costs associated with call-before-you-dig operations. Over the next few years, we foresee that the utility industry will increasingly turn to 3-D technologies to address the challenges of the 21st century.


Geoff Zeiss is a board member for GITA and serves as the director of technology for Autodesk Inc.
geoff.zeiss@autodesk.com