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It’s interesting to witness the number of large engineering firms that have adopted geospatial technology into their project planning and implementation workflows, making great inroads and profits in the past five to ten years. A growing number of engineering firms are applying GIS to large architecture/engineering and construction projects that include infrastructure design, environmental planning, facilities management, corridor planning, residential and commercial development master plans, and natural resource management.

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It’s interesting to witness the number of large engineering firms that have adopted geospatial technology into their project planning and implementation workflows, making great inroads and profits in the past five to ten years. A growing number of engineering firms are applying GIS to large architecture/engineering and construction projects that include infrastructure design, environmental planning, facilities management, corridor planning, residential and commercial development master plans, and natural resource management.

The original intent of most of these firms was to diversify themselves to keep a healthy amount of projects coming their way. While they may have only adopted the technology to meet specific project needs to begin with, many have retooled their operations over time to integrate the technology into all aspects of project workflow. What many of these firms discovered is that geospatial improves their internal processes to drive down their own costs while also driving down project costs for their clients.

Firms of Note

The firm that prompted this exploration is CH2M Hill, which this week made the announcement that they’ve sold off their Enterprise Management Solutions division to form a new firm called Critigen. With this announcement we learned that this division of the company has been growing at an accelerated pace of 20 percent each of the past three years, and is set to make similar double-digit gains this year despite the damaged economy.

It’s great to see that there’s such sustained growth in this sector. There area  a number of large engineering firms that have been applying geospatial tools to their projects for some time. I think of PB, Michael Baker, Woolpert, CDM, Arup, Stantec, Tata, EDAW, Timmons Group and the like. Many of these companies are multi-national conglomerates that do work all over the world, therefore these examples are at the top tier and scale of projects. There are also plenty of smaller international and regional players that are doing this type of work as well.

Cultural Differences

The full vision of a GIS-centric system for the management of large-scale projects throughout their lifecycle is being accomplished at these firms, but there are still many barriers that need to be overcome for maximum efficiency. In such projects there are the surveyors who do base mapping, the planners, designers and engineers that typically use CAD tools, and a GIS department that tries to weave all of this data together. There are cultural differences among these different practitioners, and also issues of scale and coordinate reference that sometimes cause stumbling blocks at different phases of project development.

With such a large market at stake, the software developers in the CAD and GIS field are applying considerable resources to solve the various stumbling blocks. There are inroads in interoperability between vendors, the adoption of document management and central data repositories, and the addition of design functionality within GIS. The technical challenges are also being addressed by individual firms that work to further streamline their operations and differentiate themselves from competitors through technology expertise.

Driving Developments

Some of the firms that have shown the greatest innovation in the geospatial engineering area have been those that have applied a great deal of process engineering to the tool integration problem. There are a number of tools out there that help a firm combine all of their drawing and other geospatial data into a central repository for better project management.

Database tools such as Oracle Spatial provide a common repository as well as tools to reference and retrieve all means of geospatial data. There are also tailored document management tools for CAD and GIS such as Bentley’s ProjectWise that have cover all manner of collaborative and content management tools to manage all project phases. The central data store provides the point of integration that addresses the different approaches of the various practitioners, and becomes a focal point for further development to better streamline operations.

Recurring Theme

There have been several other sectors where companies with deep application knowledge have harnessed geospatial technology. In fact, there’s been a progression of hot areas over the time that I’ve been involved in the Industry. When I started my geospatial career the companies that applied the technology to utility asset management were hot, closely followed by the forestry, natural resources and agriculture sector. From there the defense sector exploded. Recently there’s been a focus on infrastructure, and the areas of sustainability planning and implementation is growing strong.

The trend of the thriving technology integrator is an ongoing phenomena. It makes sense that as the technology and markets have matured there have been companies to pull together different tools to create targeted solutions that play off of their domain expertise. Those that are the best at this difficult task seem to gain a lion’s share of the projects over time that leave a solid core of a dozen or so domain experts.

It’s amazing to me that within just three or four years CH2M Hill grew a division of 700 plus people that dealt primarily with the application of geospatial technology. This example clearly illustrates a pent-up demand, and the power of geospatial technology to grow a company’s bottom line in the applied technology space.

While some of the work in the geoengineering sector has slowed due to the downturn in the economy, there are a growing number of government-led projects that will take good advantage of this built up capacity. Stimulus funds are starting to be spent in areas of Smart Grid development, renewable energy siting, corridor planning, carbon accounting, climate change planning and many areas of environmental consulting.The future is certainly bright for firms addressing these areas, and all geospatial practitioners stand to benefit by the pressure that this group places on better surveying, CAD and GIS integration.

References

Bringing GIS and Engineering Departments Closer Together, Charlie Crocker, Between the Poles Blog, June 5, 2006

GIS in Engineering, 2003 ESRI/UC Proceedings, Jennifer Redmund and Noah Benedict, The TSR Group

 

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