The New Crew: Keeping Pace with the 21st Century Asset Boom

By David Parry, McLaren Software

When electric-utility construction flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, so did the lucrative careers of the engineers behind the boom. Today, however, this “old crew” is gradually fading from the workforce–taking its irreplaceable knowledge with it.

And it couldn’t be happening at a worse time: utilities from coast to coast are aggressively adding new generation and distribution capacity–spurred on by rate-increase approvals and the reality of blackouts and brownouts. As these power companies rush to spend hundreds of millions (or even billions) of dollars each on capital expenditures, they need robust engineering forces to handle all the design and construction work.

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Unfortunately, qualified engineers are few and far between–and the problem is growing worse by the day. The number of engineers graduating in North America is steadily declining. Only 25 percent of engineers currently working in the United States are under the age of 40. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers reports that only 23,000 registered power engineers are a part of the national workforce. Moreover, only 500 undergraduate degrees are awarded annually in power engineering, down from 2,000 degrees a year during the 1980s.

The problem is made even worse by NERC’s viability-audit requirements. Utilities face massive fines if they can’t meet reliability standards and demonstrate future adequacy. This means they need engineers who can help them bring new assets on-line–fast.

But there is good news, too. There are new ways to maximize the existing engineering force, especially the small but potent cadre of younger engineers. The key is defining processes and business rules that will enable them to be successful. This “new crew” will have to work within process- and risk-mitigation parameters that didn’t burden their forerunners. The new crew will also have to work across geographic boundaries, while still meeting an ever-increasing set of corporate and governmental regulations.

New Tools, Old Ways

Looking back, the 20th century engineer saw a revolution in available technologies, such as new materials, improved construction processes and enhanced design tools. They literally went from the slide rule to sophisticated CAD tools. Yet, despite advancements in the engineering arsenal, the fundamental way engineers work has not changed until very recently. The advent of the Internet has been the biggest driver in the globalization of the world’s economy. This has fundamentally changed how engineering projects are organized and managed.

During the last major phase of utility-infrastructure construction several decades ago, engineering teams worked on similar projects. All were from the same culture, spoke the same language, lived in the same area, were probably personally acquainted, and more likely than not, worked in the same office.

But the new crew of engineers consists of highly skilled intellectual workers in disparate geographies, speaking multiple languages and of various cultural backgrounds. All of these factors are driving the need for more sophisticated collaboration methods, as well as better communication, planning and management.

New Philosophy Needed

Power engineering expertise is no longer solely concentrated in the United States. In fact, during the last 30 years, a significantly greater number of power assets have been built outside the United States than have been built in North America. The next phase of domestic construction requires that we utilize these foreign resources to get the job done.

In today’s highly regulated utility environment, document and process management is essential so that auditors can access files quickly and easily to ensure public confidence. In the post-deregulation era, independent regulatory authorities like NERC will require rigorous documentation to assure that the power industry produces its product with maximized reliability and environmental sensitivity.

Using compliance as a business driver, the new crew can create best practices and drive efficiencies throughout the organization. As they replace the army of engineers and clerical workers that established the initial infrastructure, these new workers will use automated business rules and processes to drive competitive advantages and compensate for the brain drain.

Energy companies must take advantage of the “new crew,” yet avoid likely pitfalls–such as errors and rework due to miscommunication and the disparate workplace. Think, for example, of the implications of a procurement engineer getting access to work-in-progress drawings from a vendor. He sees that the vendor has altered his original design and issues a change order to the vendor via e-mail. But, in the end, the vendor’s team overlooks the e-mail. So the net result is that a vendor has changed a design.

The simple solution to problems like this is to eliminate these events through an improved collaborative infrastructure that organizes and manages engineering content. Specifically, tools like: workflows, audit-trails, electronic signatures, watermarking, title-block synchronization, revision controls, reference-file management, reference-file binding, and rendering. Such tools help engineers get the job done right, on schedule and on budget.

Intellectual Work Management

The intellectual worker’s sole output is intellectual property captured in documents and drawings. These documents have intrinsic value but also varying degrees of risk associated with their use and distribution. Intellectual work management (IWM) is all about creating and using business-critical intellectual property.

By monitoring, measuring and managing the tasks associated with documents and drawings within a project, the new crew will have greater insight into the success of a project and its potential impact on the business. This is a luxury the old crew did not have, and today we are witnessing the consequences of that inability first-hand. For instance, how does the engineering team determine the status of a design pack? If all the documents are in review, does this mean that the task is 80 percent complete? At the end of the review, there may be either a handful of comments or hundreds of comments. This could be the difference between being 90 percent complete and 10 percent complete. This information is critical to the project manager and the success with the “new crew.”

And then there are the problems posed by life-extension projects. Based on the traditional utility model used throughout the 20th century, facilities were projected to have a life span of about 30 years from the time they were completed. But changing paradigms have now altered that traditional model and nearly all facilities built in the last three decades will exceed this originally projected life expectancy by many years. That means lots of life-extension projects. The cost of engineering-change management in this environment is monumental because much of the project information has been lost and must be re-created.

The engineering teams may have the as-builts, but don’t have design documents or records of key design decisions that could impact life-extension projects. If the facility was designed for 20 years of operation, then what compromises were made in the design that would limit the safe life to 20 years? The roadmap to making decisions related to such uncertainties must be centrally managed to allow engineering teams to not only plan for decommissioning, but also plan to extend life if needed.

The key to guaranteeing that new engineering collaborations are productive, efficient, and accurate is to ensure that the engineering deliverables are also productive, efficient and accurate. The new crew must be able to rapidly deploy best practices across vast geographies, cultures, languages and managerial structures. This boils down to guaranteeing relevancy of the engineering documents and institutionalizing best practices. For example, would a plant manager prefer 99 percent certainty that the proper plant shutdown document is up-to-date or would he rather have 100 percent certainty?

Engineering managers must institutionalize processes that clearly articulate best practices, ensuring a consistent ability to execute. This will require a new crew that has a reduced dependence on the experience of individual contributors and more reliance on the stability of the team structure and process controls.

To meet this goal, engineers need a new class of business applications that provides the mechanism for managing the intellectual worker. This is very different from providing applications that automate knowledge worker tasks such as order processing, accounting, and other business areas, which have a well-defined business process. For the intellectual worker, there is no well-defined, repeatable business process. This lack of repeatable process directly relates to the challenges faced by companies working to transition from the old crew to the new crew.

Thus, new IWM applications must focus on automating business rules and process to control the intellectual worker’s output–documents and drawings. These applications must have a strong document-management capability coupled with process automation that is based on industry best practices.

Engineering-centric IWM applications provide the ability to capture best practices and institutionalize this knowledge–reducing the risk associated with the transition from the old crew to the new crew, and improving operational efficiency.

By providing engineers with the ability to manage their work process and leverage the business rules that control their output, utilities are in a better position to take advantage of the new crew. Moreover, improving access to drawings and documents means that utilities can create a faster, more intuitive system that enables employees to locate and utilize relevant project data more easily–while also ensuring accuracy and mitigating risk.

Who knows, in the end, the “new crew” may just turn out to be a utility’s most important asset.

David Parry is chief technology officer of McLaren Software, responsible for delivering applications to solve real business issues. He graduated from Glasgow University with a BSC (honors) in electronics and electrical engineering.

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