Modern information technologies are changing all business sectors in one way or another, and engineering firms are no exception to this. It is now possible to design and build a project without having the entire staff at the project’s location. Engineering firms sometimes view this approach with skepticism, but it brings many advantages:
- Companies with operations in multiple cities, states or countries are no longer required to have a fully-staffed team at each branch office, and instead they can focus on building specialist teams to work on many projects simultaneously.
- Travel expenses are reduced significantly: Moving qualified staff members across multiple project sites is very expensive due to travel and lodging, not to mention the hours of work lost while traveling.
- Redundant job positions can be consolidated with remote collaboration, making the company easier to manage while reducing total payroll.
- Supporting business functions such as accounting and legal services can be outsourced, while engineering firms focus on what they do best.
However, to deploy remote collaboration successfully, a company must make sure it has the right IT services to support such an operation, while focusing on team building and best practices. This approach is only feasible if teams can communicate effectively, while coordinating tasks and working simultaneously without interference.
Information Technologies for Remote Collaboration
Engineering teams spread across several geographic locations generally need three types of tools to operate effectively:
- A real-time communication system
- A platform to assign, schedule and track activities
- A common database for key project files
These tools are basic prerequisites, but some projects also require software solutions that are specific to certain fields of engineering: For example, lighting designers are now using web-hosted lamp databases; and MEP design teams may require a Building Information Modeling (BIM) tool with cloud capabilities.
IT services for remote collaboration may be available as separate solutions, as part of an integrated project management software, or built into specialized design software. The following are some of the most commonly used collaboration tools in engineering projects.
There are various stand-alone tools that can be deployed by project teams to enhance long-distance communication. Skype and Google Hangouts are two of the most common examples, both of which allow text messaging and videoconferences.
Another promising tool is Slack, which integrates with an e-mail address and allows messages to be sent to individual team members, to specific teams, or to the entire staff involved in a project. Join.me is also a very useful tool, since it is web-hosted and allows team members to participate in a videoconference or to share screens, without having to install an application.
Project Management Platforms
There is a broad selection of project management platforms, tailored for companies of all sizes. Before implementing a platform, it is important to ensure that it matches the needs of the company; an enterprise-scale solution may be too expensive for a smaller firm, just like a solution targeting SMEs might not be able to meet the project management needs of a large company.
- Primavera P6: This project management platform is one of the most widely used by large-scale contractors, integrating control and collaboration functions, and offering compatibility with leading enterprise resource planning (ERP) software packages, such as Oracle and SAP. Primavera P6 is a cost-effective tool for large engineering companies, but can be two expensive for small- and medium-sized business.
- Trello: This is a very popular solution for the SME market, which includes messaging, scheduling, task assignment, tracking and event document sharing. The platform was founded in 2011 and already has over 1.1 million users per day. Trello can adapt to any type of project, including MEP design and construction.
Building Information Modeling: Autodesk REVIT
REVIT is a is a Building Information Modeling (BIM) software, which can be used for architectural design, structural engineering and MEP design. REVIT can be deployed as a project management tool during the construction phase of engineering projects, or as a facility management solution for existing buildings.
BIM software takes design from the 2D plane to 3D, granting architects and engineers enhanced visibility of building systems and how they interact with each other. Any equipment location conflict or incompatibility among building systems becomes immediately visible, saving time and avoiding expensive changes later.
Dropbox and Google Drive are simple but powerful tools, providing cloud-hosted storage for team members to manage their project files. Their basic memberships cost under $10 per user per month and grant each team member one terabyte of storage, which is more than enough for the needs of most projects. In addition, Dropbox and Google Drive integrate seamlessly with most project management and communication platforms.
Best Practices in Remote Collaboration
To deploy remote collaboration successfully, three processes must be carried out effectively:
- Communication – It can occur in real time (videoconferencing) or with a delay between team member interactions (e-mail and messaging).
- Coordination – Assigning, scheduling and monitoring tasks.
- Collaboration – Being able to work together, accomplishing project goals.
Active Management of Project Communications
The Project Management Institute (PMI) dedicates a whole chapter of its Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) to communications planning. Poor communication can make a project fail, even if the owner has solid financing sources and the project team is composed of experts.
The PMI recommends that the following aspects of project communications be defined when starting the project, avoiding confusion down the road:
- Documentation: Types of documents, formats and team members responsible for generating them.
- Communication channels: Who does each team member report to and how?
- Communication frequency: How often will meetings be carried out? Which platform will be used?
A project has a higher chance of success with planning and control. A project plan should follow a chronological sequence of activities, but it is also necessary to schedule three main types of resources:
- Equipment and assets
For example, designing an HVAC installation requires the services of qualified design engineers (labor), workstations and software (equipment), and the funds to pay wages (capital). These resources limit the number of activities that can be carried out simultaneously, as well as their completion time.
Effective Collaboration with Concurrent Engineering
Traditional design and construction follow a linear approach, which simplifies project management, but also increases the change of having to carry out expensive and time-consuming modifications. Concurrent engineering consists on shifting to a parallel approach, where all parties involved participate right from the start, even those who play a more important role near the end of the project. This way, all needs and requirements are clearly stated upfront.
Of course, concurrent engineering is much easier to implement with the right technology. For example, a BIM software allows all design teams to visualize how building systems interact with each other – if an air duct overlaps with an electric circuit, both design teams will immediately know and they can decide which system to relocate.
When is Remote Collaboration Effective?
All types of engineering companies can deploy remote collaboration, but it is especially valuable for firms that specialize on multiple building systems and have operations across many geographic locations.
- They can build a team for each specialization area, rather than having a separate team for each branch office.
- Headcount, travel expenses and downtime are optimized.
- The company can deploy knowledge management more effectively, since there is just one team for each specialization area, even if the members are spread across multiple locations.
Engineering companies aiming to have a regional scope can afford to ignore remote collaboration and its possibilities. Implementing this approach successfully can grant a significant competitive advantage.