BIM is key to water industry aim of assembly not construction

Collaboration is key to maximising the benefits of asset lifecycle information management in the water sector, writes Bernadette Ballantyne.

The BIM challenge for the water industry  is not so much about construction but about managing infrastructure. As a result the acronym ALIM (Asset Lifecycle Information Management) is becoming widely used to describe the digital transition. "People think of BIM being used for 3D models on vertical construction, but for us it is not about a single project, “ explained Andrew Cowell, engineering director, MWH Treatment Ltd. “It is about taking the concept and applying it across an entire industry."

Cowell was co-chairing the BIM for the Water Industry conference organised by supplier body British Water and consultant MWH Global in Birmingham in last week along with Richard Coackley, director of energy development at URS. The event highlighted both the challenges and the opportunities facing the sector with one of the biggest advantages being the potential to “move from a piggy bank approach to thinking more about the whole life cost,” said Professor David Philps, head of BIM implementation at the Cabinet Office’s UK BIM Task Group. In other words considering total expenditure (Totex) from the outset instead of separating spending into capital expenditure (Capex) and operational expenditure (Opex).

“We develop products for solutions - we don’t want to design. We want to assemble the solutions, we don’t want to construct," Dale Evans, @one Alliance

One of the organisations in the industry that has made most progress in terms of using information modelling for its programme is Anglian Water’s @one Alliance. The organisation has been Anglian Water’s delivery partner for the AMP 4 and AMP 5 programmes and consists of Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions, Barhale, Black & Veatch, Gronmij, Jacobs, MWH and Skanska.

 Director Dale Evans told delegates that over the past five years the group has been working on using an information based approach to managing its work programme with a view to obtaining a 30% cost and 50% embodied carbon saving compared to the previous AMP. “Clearly they were very stretching targets. To meet those we needed a different approach. Traditional design and construction was not enough,” he said.

This meant that the overall process had to change. “We develop products for solutions - we don’t want to design,” said Evans. “We want to assemble the solutions, we don’t want to construct, and then we operate and maintain to deliver a service. This is really product life cycle management.”

Products themselves are defined as any part of our programme where there is repeatability or commonality and Evans explains that this strategy come from industries that have already moved down the digital path such as aerospace and manufacturing.

This is quite a significant culture change for engineers. Our products are intelligent so what you are selecting is a dataset so every product comes with an installation guide, procurement guide and most importantly they come with operation and maintenance data. Our aspiration is to be able to make Totex decisions from the point at which we select a product.”

So far the team, which carries out around £200m of work per annum, have carried out several major projects that have convinced them of the value to be had from this approach. A 15,000 population wastewater treatment plant in Cambridge for example worth £11M was delivered for 20% less cost and 45% less carbon. “The particular challenge for this job was to go from construction to operation in 12 months, they actually did it in less than 9 months by maximising the product selection approach.”

Another scheme, a £9M treatment works in Norfolk highlighted the impact that the information based working environment has had on the overall process. By digitally mapping out the scheme using GIS and the standard products the team could see that the access ways and other safety features would be in place. “They could prove it was safe to operate before they had done the design and it becomes compellingly obvious, why would you do ‘safe to operate’ at the end?”

Evans says that the process has been evolving for around five years and that by the end of this AMP period the catalogue will have around 200 products but he points out that it remains a work in progress. “Opportunities open up this evolves so I am not sure what the product catalogue is going to look like in 5 years time.”

Although water companies are at different stages in this digitised product revolution the standardised approach is predicted to spread as the benefits grow. Experts say that this can be achieved most efficiently if experiences are shared and to this end supplier representation body British Water and the cross industry BIM 4 Water announced at the event that they would work together to promote more collaboration.

This could provide a valuable platform bringing consultants, water companies and major contractors from BIM 4 Water with British Water’s suppliers and product manufacturer base.  Suppliers in particular say that this is much needed. Speaking as the chairman of the British Water International SME group Derek Bourne of Gee & Co explained that suppliers were concerned that given the pyramidal structure of the industry BIM requirements could vary between water companies and at each supply chain interface “There is the potential for a lot of deviation on a potential common approach to this. By their very nature SMEs have a limited number of resources to become familiar with each special requirement.”

He pointed out that ensuring a return on investment is vital to SMEs and called for more clarity. “We want a clear understanding of the water industry’s BIM strategy, an indication of project opportunities that will be BIM specified in order to validation return on investment, clear timescales and as much standardisation as possible.”

Although much uncertainty remains, there is nonetheless groundbreaking work being done to develop digital asset modelling.  “The integration between BIM and GIS is enormously powerful. We see intelligent master maps, added to intelligence asset data, added to terrain data automatically generating a BIM model of the asset and this is genuinely world leading,” said Mark Enza, group practice manager water& environment at Mott MacDonald speaking about some of the @one Alliance work.

Tony Andrews, solutions executive at Bentley Systems urged the water industry to look at the experiences gained on Crossrail. “From the outset they wanted to ensure that all of the design and construction information becomes the basis for an asset management system that will be used throughout the life of the railway,” he said explaining that successful implementation of BIM had “broken down walls of wastage”.

With huge cost and carbon savings already being implemented and other European member states considering embedding BIM into their own procurement regulations the momentum for digital information models is growing. Taking a lead on BIM could give the UK water industry supply chain a competitive advantage in other markets and a collaborative approach is vital for efficiency in the sector.





If you would like to contact Bernadette Ballantyne about this, or any other story, please email