The growing proliferation of connected devices and an insatiable demand for data, plus the introduction of 5G wireless communications networks, are forcing carriers to upgrade and expandtheir critical network infrastructure. The momentum comes from the densification of small cells and fiber optics.
Companies building these large-scale telecom infrastructure projects often encounter complexity and sizes unlike any other. These projects cross nontraditional boundaries, and several systems are usually necessary for deployment, resulting in thousands and thousands of data points. The kicker is that the distributed nature of these projects and sheer volume of assets means that inefficiencies are multiplied on a massive scale.
As the volume of projects increases, it will be more critical than ever to execute these projects as efficiently and productively as possible. Today, thanks to the rapid emergence of cloud-based infrastructure and other technological advances, there is tremendous potential to improve the efficiencyof these large-scale projects.
Embracing a World of IIoT
At first glance, the operational advances over the last decade — drones, 3-D scanning and printing, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, data analytics, machine learning and autonomous equipment —seem more at home in the pages of a science fiction novel than on a construction site. Although wide- and far-ranging, these innovations come together under the umbrella of the industrial internet of things (IIoT), which relies on cloud-based software to collect, process, manage and analyze data.
Cloud-based infrastructure digitizes the real world and pushes the industry toward building a secure, immersive environment. Traditionally, operators would capture 2-D representations, such as spreadsheets and renderings, and send them out to project teams via email.
Today, operators can make use of cloud-based programs to capture data, run machine learning, convert data to a 3-D model and add heat maps to highlight areas of interest all geo-referenced to the real world. With handheld mobile devices, the cloud can display a 3-D digital twin of the world in the palm of a hand — and it can be shared instantly with everyone on the team, from engineer to executive, no matter where they are located. The technology is here; now it is up to the companies to embrace these innovations and invest in cloud-based systems.
Solving the Distributed Dilemma
Poor project data and miscommunication are already problems in construction projects, but the distributed nature of these large-scale telecom projects creates even more of a hindrance. How do you manage a dispersed workforce that is divided into various configurations across the geography and bring them together to handle a project or a problem?
The answer is through the cloud. Cloud-based data gives operators secure access to a whole new ecosystem of intelligence, enabling them to share accurate, updated information in real time. This allows for previously unimaginable levels of situational awareness and enhanced project information management. Arming teams with mobile devices allows for the quick and easy transferof data — e.g., geospatial data, visualizations, analytics and scenario planning — anytime and anywhere. This increases collaboration, accelerating root cause awareness and resolution while improving accountability and transparency.
Telecommunications is an inherently asset-intensive, location-diverse industry. No matter the component — from infrastructure to customers and suppliers to workforce — a clear locational perspective enables high-value, data-driven decision-making.
Advanced technologies such as light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and photogrammetry change the game, minimizing guesswork, expediting highly accurate data capture, and improving the quality and availability of locational data. Incorporating first-person simulations and change-detection of data over time allows operators to understand the project environment better, putting science fiction into action.
Maximizing Economies of Scale
The economies of scale that come from using large computing infrastructure allow everyone to achieve more. Apart from simply storing data securely, cloud computing maximizes a larger pool of resources, allowing for mass updates and broad containment in the event of a security breach.
That scale provides tremendous advantages, which becomes critical when working to ensure security. Last year, the New York Cyber Task Force released a series of recommendations in its report, “Building a Defensible Cyberspace.” The group specifically recommends the increased use of cloud computing, explaining that“scale massively aids the defense. This can happen in several ways, such as taking the user out of the solution, taking away entire classes of attacks, or when a vendor or provider makes a change that benefits all their customers.”
Moving to the cloud is a fact of the future. Localized or centralized computing infrastructure is slowly entering obsolescence, and companies that add an agile approach to their enterprise strategies have the greatest opportunity to see substantial benefit.
According to a 2016 World Economic Forum report, “Shaping the Future of Construction: A Breakthrough in Mindset and Technology,” full-scale digitization in non-residential construction over the next decade could lead to annual global cost savings of $700 billion to $1.2 trillion (13 percent to 21 percent) in the engineering and construction phase, and $300 billion to $500 billion (10 percent to 17 percent) in the operational phase.
Barriers to Integration
In general, there is a low barrier to entry when it comes to embracing cloud-based programs. Because operators do not need to purchase physical assets or integrate their programs into in-house systems, organizations are able to pivot quickly. In this era of digital transformation and climatic uncertainty, change is the only constant, and embracing flexibility becomes a critical component of success.
This calls to mind Aesop’s fable of the oak and the reeds, in which an oak tree stands strong against the wind until a gale uproots it. Falling among the reeds, the oak questions how the frail and slender reeds managed to survive the gale unscathed. The reeds replied that rather than resist the winds as the oak did, they yielded and bowed, allowing the wind to pass harmlessly overhead. Traditional, inflexible mainframes can be likened to the stubbornness of the oak, and cloud-based software compares with the flexibility of the reeds.
When deploying at scale, operators are under constant pressure to reduce per-unit costs, and it can become increasingly difficult to deliver in a cost-sensitive manner. With cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) models, operators can break off economically friendly chunks of their business and receive quick efficiencies and insights, providing high returns on investment without the high cost of investment.
People also play a critical role in embracing new technology. A critical element to changing an organizational mindset is to have access to trusted experts who can coach leadership through the technology — both how to ease into it without creating disruption, and how to change the culture to embrace and make use of it.
The electric utility industry has invested in remote monitoring and automation for years, but only recently was there a cultural shift in mindset that this data could be put to greater use.
Black & Veatch is working on multiple digital data-capture projects in New York and across New England. These projects use mobile LIDAR and drone-based high-resolution imagery to capture information on utility poles and tower infrastructure. To manage, maintain, collaborate and visualize this complex data, Black & Veatch relies on a suite of software offered by Atonix Digital and powered by the Asset360 cloud-based analytics platform, which simplifies asset management by consolidating data from a variety of sources into a single point of reference.
This data is not only being used to accelerate grid modernization deployments, but also it is showing value in other areas by acting as an accelerator tool for deployment-of-network infrastructure and physical security. This is a trend we see across the business. From deploying public networks to deploying fiber, single captures of data and digitizing infrastructure are adding value to many different projects and functions in the industry.
Data has evolved into a resource, one that becomes more valuable the more it is used.
Last year, The Economist proclaimed data “the world’s most valuable resource.” No matter the activity — from going for a run to watching TV — virtually every activity creates a digital trace, which is simply raw material for a data analytics program, the publication said.
To have an unlimited resource of sustainable data is a mind-boggling concept, and the opportunities are beyond comprehension. After the initial investment, that data can be collected and paired with analytics capabilities, adding value in ways that traditional businesses could not fathom.
Once data is in hand, companies can use this information to expand into new opportunities, such as augmented reality and virtual reality, which can layer data onto the real world. These scenarios can provide additional levels of critical information to field personnel and even change the dynamics of how to train people. Once this happens, the sky’s the limit when it comes to obtaining a return on investment.
We are entering an age where technology and understanding are changing rapidly, and organizations need to pivot quickly. Agile, forward-thinking companies will see this, and those that can arrange their strategies from the enterprise perspective down to whatever system or product they deliver will stand to gain the most benefit.
Edward A. Sutton III, P.E., is a principal consultant and systems manager for Black & Veatch. Ryan Deschaine is the chief solution architect and leads user-experience design for Atonix Digital, a Black & Veatch subsidiary that develops and offers a suite of software powered by the Assett360 cloud-based analytics platform.