Building 21st Century mega-projects will require 21st Century project management techniques and tools.
By David Parry, McLaren Software
As coal and nuclear power plant construction flourished in the 20th century, so did the lucrative careers of the engineers responsible for their design and construction. Today we continue to enjoy the energy this aging infrastructure provides as the “Old Crew” gradually fades from the workforce – unfortunately, taking with them their irreplaceable knowledge.
Even under the best of circumstances, such an exodus of talent cultivated over the past four decades would leave a void in the current power engineering market. But the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the highly specialized talent pool needed to design and build the next generation of baseload power facilities is not being replenished at a sustainable rate. The ebb of engineering brainpower could have a crippling effect on new coal-fired and nuclear generation capacity.
Increasing deregulation, growing energy demand and rising natural gas prices make the lack of what I like to call a “New Crew” to construct the 21st century’s new generation capacity a matter approaching urgency. The number of engineers graduating in North America is steadily declining. Only 25 percent of engineers currently working in the U.S. are under the age of 40. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers reports that 360,000 electrical and 23,000 registered power engineers are a part of the national workforce. However, only 500 undergraduate degrees are awarded annually in power engineering, down from 2,000 degrees a year during the 1980s. What happened to the talent pool?
Although the Cold War gave rise to an entire generation of nuclear engineers to support the defense industry, interest on the part of incoming college students declined dramatically as policymakers, the military and the public shied away from new nuclear construction projects. Additionally, a nuclear engineering degree is specialized and not as broadly applicable as a degree in electrical or mechanical engineering. Like the commercial nuclear power sector, the coal-fired generation sector has relied on a slowly diminishing talent pool to extend existing plants past the end-of-life phase in lieu of new construction. The broader issue is that some of the best and brightest engineers have gone on to pursue more challenging and financially rewarding jobs in other sectors.
The fact is, however, tremendous growth opportunities still exist for the New Crew of power engineers. The key is defining processes and business rules that will enable them to be successful. This New Crew will have to work within new process and risk mitigation parameters that did not burden their forerunners. While managing complex bodies of work has not changed, the New Crew will be faced with working across geographic boundaries while still meeting an ever-increasing set of corporate and governmental regulations.
New Tools – Old Ways
Twentieth century engineers saw a revolution in available technologies such as new materials, improved manufacturing and construction processes, and enhanced design tools – from the slide rule to sophisticated computer-aided design tools that allow engineers to model and test their design well before it was ever built. Yet despite advancements in the engineering arsenal, the fundamental way engineers worked has not changed until very recently. The advent of the Internet has been the biggest driver in globalizing the world’s economy. This has fundamentally changed how engineering projects are organized and managed.
During the last major phase of coal plant construction two to three decades ago, engineering teams worked on similar plants. 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 who will design and construct plants from here on is comprised of highly skilled intellectual workers in disparate geographies, speaking multiple languages and possessing various cultural backgrounds. An aging workforce and the globalization of engineering staffs are driving the need for more sophisticated collaboration methods, communication, planning and management to build power plants.
New Philosophy Needed
Power engineering expertise is no longer concentrated in the United States. In fact, during the last 30 years, a significantly greater number of both coal and nuclear plants have been built outside the U.S. than in North America. The next phase of construction requires resources from abroad to get the job done.
In today’s highly regulated nuclear energy environment, document and process management is essential so that auditors can access files quickly and easily to help restore public confidence in these programs. In the post-deregulation era, independent regulatory authorities will require operating regulations and rigorous documentation to assure the power industry produces its product with maximized safety to workers and the public.
Using regulatory 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 who established the initial infrastructure, these new workers will use automated business rules and processes to drive competitive advantages and make up somewhat for the brain drain.
So how can an energy company take advantage of the New Crew yet avoid pitfalls such as errors and rework due to miscommunication and the geographically and culturally disparate workplace? Think of the implications of a procurement engineer getting access to work-in-progress drawings that relate to a major piece of equipment he is responsible for procuring. He sees the design has changed and issues a change order to the vendor, but in the end these design changes are dismissed by the team. So the net result is that a vendor has changed a design!
The simple answer is that such events could be eliminated through an improved collaborative infrastructure to organize and manage engineering content across the globe and among the engineers themselves. Specifically, these new engineering teams will use workflows, audit-trails, electronic signatures, watermarking, title-block synchronization, revision controls, reference-file management, reference-file binding, rendering and other tools to get the job done right, on schedule and on budget.
Intellectual Worker Management
The intellectual worker’s sole output is intellectual property captured in documents and drawings. These documents have intrinsic value but varying degrees of risk associated with their use and distribution. Intellectual worker management (IWM) is all about optimizing the engineering design and asset change management processes by focusing on the processes around 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 affect 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 no revision comments, or perhaps 200. This could be the difference in being 90 percent complete or 10 percent complete. Such information is critical to the project manager and to achieving success with the New Crew.
Reflecting the traditional utility model used throughout the 20th century, facilities were projected to have a life span of about 30 years. But changing paradigms altered that model. Nearly all plants built in the last three decades will exceed their originally projected life expectancy by many years. That suggests lots of life extension projects. The cost of engineering change management in this environment is monumental because much of the information these projects require 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 affect life extension projects. If the plant was designed for 20 years of operation, what compromises were made in the design that might limit the safe life to just 20 years? The roadmap to making decisions related to such uncertainties must be centrally managed to allow engineering teams not only to plan for decommissioning but also plan to extend life if needed.
The key to guaranteeing that new engineering collaborations are productive, creative, efficient, safe and accurate is to ensure that the engineering deliverables they ultimately produce are accurate, effective and timely. The New Crew will be able to rapidly deploy best practices across geographies, cultures, languages and managerial structures. This boils down to guaranteeing relevancy of the documents that are produced and institutionalizing best practices. For example, would the plant manager prefer 99 percent certainty that the proper nuclear power plant shutdown document is up-to-date or would he rather have 100 percent certainty?
For the next phase of nuclear and coal-fired power plant design, engineering managers must institutionalize processes within the company that clearly articulate best practices in such a way that they ensure 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 a new class of business application is required that provides the mechanism for managing the intellectual worker. This differs greatly from providing applications that automate knowledge worker tasks such as order processing, accounting and other business areas that have well defined business process. For the intellectual worker, no well-defined business process exists. This lack of process directly relates to the challenges faced by the New Crew. Applications must have a strong document management capability coupled with process automation that is based on industry best practice.
Engineering-centric IWM applications provide the ability to capture process best practice and institutionalize this knowledge to reduce the risk associated with the transition from the Old Crew to the New Crew and improve operational efficiency.
Results that can be achieved by merging institutionalized processes with an IWM strategy include:
- Reduced impact of attrition.
- Reduced risk of global workshare /outsource.
- Improved efficiency, reduced cost, increased profit.
- Lower cost of on-boarding.
- Reduced risk of non-compliance and re-work.
- Improved audit-ability and visibility into operations.
- Enhanced improvability of processes.
Preparing for the New Crew shift change requires utilities to respond to changes in business requirements and implementations quickly while guaranteeing compliance. By improving access to drawings and documents the utility can create a faster, more intuitive system that enables employees to locate and utilize relevant project data more easily while ensuring accuracy and mitigating risk.
David Parry is chief technology officer of McLaren Software responsible for delivering applications to solve real business issues. He previously worked for BAeSEMA, where he helped develop a virtual reality system for the visualization of complex dynamic systems and the development of an EDM system to manage and deliver key projects. He graduated from Glasgow University with a BSC (honors) in electronics and electrical engineering.
Power generators are already buying globally to build locally. Dockwise Shipping is a Netherlands-based shipping company with a fleet of 15 semi-submersible heavy transport vessels (HTV). The vessels are used to ship fully-erected cargo, which allows fabricators to build units in cost-effective countries. The current maximum load that can be shipped is over 70,000 metric tons (154 million pounds). Most cargoes are much smaller but still need much engineering to make the voyage feasible.
After the stability of the ship-cargo combination has been checked and the transportation route has been laid out, engineers determine the design environmental conditions for which the transport has to be designed. Elements such as wave height and wind speed parameters serve as input for calculations that model the expected motional behavior of the ship. The motions and accelerations finally define the amount of external sea fastening and eventual internal reinforcements in the cargo that are required to make the trip safe and successful.
Two 2,400-metric-ton HRSG’s were shipped from Indonesia to the U.S. aboard Dockwise’s M/V Enterprise. Photo courtesy Dockwise.
For the power industry, several power barges and fuel barges have been shipped by Dockwise. These barges are loaded onto the HTV by submerging the HTV, floating the barge over the deck and then deballasting the HTV. The cargo rests on a layer of soft wooden cribbing beams, positioned under the strong parts of the cargo, such as bulkheads, web frames and stiffeners. If a cargo is non-floating, such as heat recovery steam generators, it can be rolled, skidded or lifted onto the HTV deck.