Digital future from an engineering consultancy perspective.

I often ponder about the future of our industry and where technology will lead us and indeed, where will we lead technology. Is technology challenging the equilibrium when it comes to a full-service offering from the infrastructure engineering consultancy’s? Some would say yes if our lives today are anything to go by.

Technology in the 21st century can make our lives a lot easier. New tools are becoming available in a rapid speed and it’s interesting to see how technology companies like Google may become our competitors in the not so distant future. While technology allows us to provide clients with a more innovative service, clients still require in-depth engineering expertise and people to bring technology to life, as we know what our client struggles with in their daily work.

I believe in people-powered technology,

one cannot go without the other.

So, there is more to the infrastructure engineering consultancy business, and many other industries, than technology alone. You cannot put a monetary figure on relationships and human interaction when dealing with clients and stakeholders. It’s also about having the right people in the right roles – the person who understands the software and how to use and manipulate it, the client liaison, and the technical consultants. When technology and technical industry expertise work in tandem – that’s where you find ‘the sweet spot’. I believe in people-powered technology, one cannot go without the other. Technology doesn’t stand-alone.

Back in 2017 I was doing a project at SMEC South Africa involving extensive storm water pipe inspection datasets. Though only a small scale project, a perfect example of what I mean.

Specialist inspection companies used cameras mounted on robots to travel through kilometres of the Durban Municipal waterpipe network. This took place in the form of many individual projects, each targeted at smaller parts of the network. Each project provided detailed photos, GIS, MS Access databases and video footage showing the structural condition of the pipes. While this can generate an excellent insight into sections of the pipe network and provide valuable advice for maintenance and repair, it for long was deemed too expensive and complex to process the data of all individual projects for holistic use in the Municipal asset management system.

Hence, valuable data was archived for years. This continued up until the moment our consultants discussed the – at that time – novel possibilities FME could offer. It led to my first stand-alone FME-only assignment for a client.

The goal was to load the terabytes of distributed data of the Durban Municipality into their infrastructure asset management system and deliver customised data-driven reports and statistics tailored to the client’s business needs. Initially stored in numerous files and databases, we cross-checked the data, transformed it, and made it available to the client. Then, we sat together to discuss what information was key for decision making and tailored their systems reports to their needs. In the end this allowed our client to better report on their pipe network at an integrated, global, level while also being able to access key details like the condition of specific segments at inspection time or look at inspection photos of a specific pipe.

While this all sounds like an impressive technical exercise, for me the key is to always keep in mind that technology cannot work in isolation. We knew our client well enough to understand their need. It’s worth very little if we don’t forge quality client relationships and understand our clients exact requirements and know how we can manipulate technology to solve their problems. That’s what sets engineering consultancy companies apart. Also in the “Digital Age” they will have the curious people with technical nous and customer understanding.

Rewritten version of a blog I wrote at SMEC South Africa, July 2017