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Realistic as­sess­ments

A background discussion


Gruner Berchtold Eicher AG
Juri Schuler,
Civil Engineer (ETH)
juri[punkt]schuler [ät] gruner[punkt]ch

Gruner Ltd
Kilian Reyer,
Civil Engineer (TU)
kilian[punkt]reyer [ät] gruner[punkt]ch


Interview with Kilian Reyer and Juri Schuler by Georg Lutz

The trend toward digitization and the hype surrounding BIM, which is also evident at Swissbau, sometimes oversteps the mark. The question arises, where in our daily lives do the new concepts, technologies and tools actually help us? To answer this question, Georg Lutz conducted a background discussion with Juri Schuler and Kilian Reyer, both employees of the Gruner Group.

The topic of digitization has also arrived within the framework of infrastructure. That must certainly be a complex challenge?
Kilian Reyer (KR) Yes, it is in many ways. Internally, it is a complex challenge because the various departments have progressed differently in their application of digital tools and digital workflows. Quite apart from the fact that it is a fundamental challenge to depart from proven processes and methods which were developed and improved over decades.

Juri Schuler (JS): In addition, our customers and clients are confronted with the same questions and nobody can predict as of now how the collaborative working relationship will ideally function under digital conditions. In contrast to construction or building services, those of us in infrastructure development in Switzerland are still at square one.

The range of assessments is extensive. For some, for example, BIM is a powerful engine of change that is doing away with old working methods. Others merely consider it to be an additional tool. How do you see it?
KR: Our core competence, namely planning, is and remains unchanged. This aspect is often overlooked at the moment, with all of the hype about the digitization. For me, BIM is first and foremost an improved tool that, like any new tool, has an impact on working and collaboration processes. But its effects on the processes are quite far-reaching, and that is the difference compared to before.

JS: This will be particularly evident in the design and planning of large infrastructure projects. The new tools and working methods open up new possibilities, including increased efficiency, simplified visualization, but also with regard to the operating phase. I can easily imagine that for small and medium-sized projects the “analog” world will continue to exist for a considerable period and perhaps it may never completely disappear.

Let’s try to approach the practical change processes and their implications. What does digitization represent for the planning and design phase?
KR: From a technical standpoint, planning and design is the processing of data into information that can then be implemented on the construction site. The principal instrument of our work is and remains the plan and the document. In the future, a database will support it. This demands an entirely new way of thinking by us planners, but it also offers us many new possibilities and even the chance to provide new services.

How will the contract design change?
JS: In my opinion, I expect a development that will initially appear to be paradoxical. Digitization would actually facilitate better cooperation between a large number of small players with their specific competencies and tasks. Today, major infrastructure projects are often put out for tender in phases. However, I believe that development will first go in a different direction and that there will again be larger packages.

JS: In infrastructure planning, many interfaces remain unresolved. There is not yet a uniform standard for transmitting data. In this still uncertain new world, the interfaces and responsibilities have to be managed differently. One answer to this is to reduce the risk for developers by means of mandates which again consist of several planning phases. In this new world, which has yet to be fully tested, one therefore has to manage the interfaces and responsibilities, including those of a legal nature, differently.

KR: In addition, in this new world services and expenses from later planning phases are transferred to earlier phases. As planners, we must therefore deal with the entire planning process and the definition of the end product much more with regard to the contractual aspect.

The core element continues to be the provision of services on the construction site. How should we think of this going forward?
JS: It will still take some time before digitization reaches the construction site. Paper plans will remain in place for the time being. However, in the future, once information is transmitted digitally, the construction companies will also face considerable challenges in training their people. 

KR: Because our primary working instrument will be the database in the future, the construction planning information will be machine-readable. That opens up entirely new possibilities on the construction site, which significantly influence the construction process as well as the material or method of construction. In this regard, prefabrication is certainly also an initially important area in infrastructure development, but there are already attempts to work with robots on the construction site. We are following these developments with great interest because they also have implications for our planning and design.

And last but not least, what about services?
JS: I see a real need here that we as planners will be able to better meet in the future, namely the use of planning data to support developers in the operation of the structures, the maintenance planning and control activities such as inspections. The tracking of construction data and plans may come into play.
KR: It is our experience that many clients are particularly interested in and can be convinced of embarking on the digital path. But they need an experienced partner who will accompany them and help them realize the opportunities for added value.

A sensitive subject is education and training. The shortage of skilled workers is a key topic. What must change in the training courses?
KR: We find that professionals who are completing vocational and higher education today are lagging behind in regard to digitization. Our employees are in part further along. This will hopefully change in the near future. If a basic understanding of simple programming, databases and the use of current software were to be a mandatory component of the training, then we would have already achieved a lot. We are happy to do our part with regard to interns, trainees and young engineers.

And how do you prepare forty-year-old employees for the changes?
KR: We do not just prepare them for it, but accompany them in the change process, in which we also find ourselves. Training is central to this as is mutual learning with and on projects.

JS: As a company and managers, we bear a great responsibility in this transition process. There may continue to be “analog niches” in the future. But we will ensure that as many as possible will arrive in the digital future.

Kilian Reyer is a Senior Project Manager at Gruner Ltd in Basel.
Juri Schuler is a member of the management of Gruner Berchtold Eicher AG in Zug.