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Is GIS Modelling the Answer to the Implications of Age?

First publishedin ITS International
2011 May June
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US Infrastructure
Although some of the US's older infrastructure is over-enginerring by modern standards, it still needs regular maintenance

Geoff Zeiss of Autodesk talks about the convergence going on between GIS and other software systems which will revolutionise the design and construction of nations' utilities

The issue is that we're getting old. But forget the discovery of body hair in places it never used to be, whether or not to dye, contact lenses versus glasses - in fact, put aside entirely the decision to age gracefully or outrageously; the personal implications pale next to the effects on wider society.

Faced with the problem of how to address the imminent retirement of large numbers of experienced technical personnel, utility companies are in crisis. Boom-and-bust recruitment over several decades has resulted in many cases in significant gaps emerging between the current senior and follow-on generations of engineers, with all that that entails.

Geoff Zeiss, director of the utility industry program within Autodesk, Inc. offers some illustrations of the problem. He cites figures from a recent Geospatial Information & Technology Association (GITA) conference session on aging workforces. Although the figures he cites are from the power and water industries many of the same issues also confront transportation, he says.

"Some 42 per cent of Texan electricity distributor Oncor's technical workforce is eligible for retirement over the next 13 years. Japanese company NTT Infranet will see 50 per cent of its technical workforce become eligible in the next decade. These companies are in better shape than most I know; for instance, the average age of the workforce at Toronto Hydro is 60.

"At Oncor and NTT the average age of the workforce doesn't look so bad by comparison but if you look deeper in both organisations you see two distinct cohorts. At Oncor, there are around 70 engineers in the older cohort. With an average of 25-30 years' experience, these are guys who've worked at the same company their whole lives. Oncor also has around 60 engineers in its younger cohort. The average number of years' experience there is 2.5.

"At NTT the situation is broadly similar, and it reflects a tendency within utility companies to go for decades without hiring and then be faced with a situation of having to hire like crazy as a bow wave of retirements approaches.

"This is true across the globe, in both hemispheres. The projections are the same for the whole of Western Europe, although the situation is slightly different in Eastern Europe. Even China, by 2020, is predicted to have problems.

"It's not just a population issue, it's a participation issue. The US and Canada, for example, both have growing populations as a result of immigration yet these issues remain. They've been the focus of some very high-level focus groups within such organisations as the IEEE. There are some big issues associated with attracting young people to engineering disciplines.

"Nonetheless, even though the problem has been identified, utility companies are expecting tail-offs in both experience and employee numbers. NTT currently has 1,700 employees and expects to see that fall to 1,400 by 2016."

Solution 1: education

"The number of soon-to-be-retired employees is widely known. In the US, for example, 33 per cent of electric power linesmen are expected to end their working lives by 2012. That's causing some interesting things to happen. The utility companies are waking up to what needs to be done and putting in place education schemes designed to catch new blood at both the university-trained engineer and skilled trades levels.

"In terms of the latter, the US has never really had a good apprenticeship programme; we've tended to raid the UK and other countries when we've needed talent. Now, though, major utility companies are actively recruiting from high schools specifically for the electric power industry.

"That's bearing fruit, not least because with the shortage of trained personnel the utilities sector can literally be a job for life. Every year, City West Water, which provides waste water services for the city of Melbourne in Australia, recruits young people from high schools to be waste water system designers. The interesting thing is that they've managed to retain them - they haven't gone elsewhere. In many locations in the US, though, utility companies are being forced to look at ways to retain people beyond retirement age because we simply can't afford for them to stop working - and that's even with current discussions over increasing the retirement age to 69 or 70."
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US Infrastructure and workforce
It's not just the US's infrastructure which is aging. so is the workforce which is maintaining it(Picture: Rick Tisch)

Solution 2: technology

Training is one way to address the problem. Another is to use technology to somehow make up for the shortfall. Here, Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) come to the fore.

"There are a number of interesting strands but the key trend is convergence," Zeiss continues.

"Instead of using CAD tools for design, a sophisticated process the ultimate output of which is really only a piece of paper, designers and developers are moving towards the use of intelligent digital models. These can do far more. For example, as a network is being designed, these models can take on automatically the tasks of quantity surveying and generation of bills of materials. This automates the process where a technician had to interpret reams of blueprints and then use a spreadsheet to laboriously build up huge great lists of what's needed and how much it'll cost. Many of these tasks are really quite basic but compared to the old paper and pen exercises the savings in time and effort are considerable.

"These systems can take care of clash detection. On engineering design projects multiple design teams work independently and it's not uncommon that one team places a transformer where a drain needs to go, for instance. Another area where intelligent models are being adopted is construction scheduling. This all helps to save money and maintain budgets because problems can be found and corrected at the design stage rather than during construction.

"The next big step is 3D visualisation. This offers huge benefits to the design team, perhaps the most important of which is the ability to communicate effectively with non-technical people - especially politicians but also the public. We're talking about gaming-type technology here; it's a very natural, intuitive environment which is much better than the old 2D way of doing things because there a much lesser burden in terms of interpretation. It's interesting that folks involved in GIS and engineering have often encountered resistance when asking for the cash to acquire such equipment; that changes when mayors and the like see the results because they come to regard them as a way to improve communication with the electorate and, just possibly, their chances of re-election.

"The final part of the whole convergence trend is tying those 3D visualisations together with intelligent models and simulations. That allows engineers to show decision-makers what a project will look like and what the alternatives might be, both above and below ground. Once you build these models and integrate them with geospatial data and technology, you're talking about digital cities. These are intelligent, 'working' entities that allow you to see utilities, including transit, in operation. And the commercial gains are considerable; in the US, Duke Energy has used this technology to increase its electricity substation design engineers' productivity by an estimated 50 per cent. Again using power generation and distribution as an example, many countries including those in the EU are moving towards 'smart grids'. In the US virtually all of the existing 14,000 substations will require rehabilitation or replacement, as well as new substations for the estimated 50,000 additional lines of transmission that is required to bring renewable energy to market. In Europe, where a 'super grid' is being talked about, there's a lot of work that has to be done because of the redundancy caused by national borders. All of the same applies to our road networks.

"Modelling at this level is going to make it a lot easier to model the impacts of, and on, utilities. Over the two decades to 2030 it's estimated that worldwide something of the order of $24-71 trillion is going to be spent on developing and upgrading ports, airports, roads, water and power. There's a lot of potential to save a lot of money and ultimately, design something which not only gets it right from the word go but also is a fundamentally better solution."

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