Interview: Bhupinder Singh, Bentley Systems CTO on the value of digital models

Infrastructure design and management software specialist Bentley Systems hosted its annual Year in Infrastructure conference last week. Chief technology officer Bhupinder Singh sets out a vision for the technology driven infrastructure future. 

Bhupinder Singh, CTO Bentley Systems

The future of infrastructure design construction operation and maintenance will be increasingly digitally enabled and highly connected in the cloud, delegates heard at last week's Bentley Systems Year in Infrastucture conference in London.

On show were a range of powerful tools underpinned by Bentley's new cloud based CONNECT Edition software suite designed to move infrastructure professionals beyond the realms of simply design functions towards value added "optioneering", "conceptioneering" and data analysis applications to deliver clients better solutions and enhanced decision making.

Chief technology officer Bhupinder Singh's keynote gave a glimpse into the future but also highlighted what is possible right now - including the head-turning and hugely powerful reality modelling tools capable of creating digital models rapidly from simply digital photography and the data analytics tools capable of transforming the business of asset management. 

The message to owners, operators, designers and constructors was simple:  Get connected to embrace the power of digital technolgy across the infrastructure lifecycle.

Interview by Antony Oliver

You say that embracing a technology driven infrastructure future means coping with increasing amounts of devices, software and data.  How is Bentley Systems helping?

We could have taken the approach of saying here is a built for purpose app for your mobile device and here’s another for your laptop but integration between them is your problem. We didn’t and [with CONNECT Edition] regardless of what device you are using you can still complete your workflow. The data that gets created on each device is the same – so you can transfer the data across different devices - which is a huge advantage. We are also trying to ensure the look and feel on all versions is similar.

Your new CONNECT Edition software is now rolling out across the Bentley suite – what are users saying about it?

The promise has most certainly been understood by the users. There is a network effect of connectivity – the more connected you are the more useful it becomes and you see more of the value. We have done a few things to help the adoption. Because we have data compatibility we didn’t have to release everything at once – you can still use the [existing] V8i versions and participate in the workflow. As the supply chain comes on board the most interesting thing is the ability to reach into businesses that were not using Bentley before.

The cloud is a” fundamental enabler” and critical to your future connected software vision – is there still a resistance in infrastructure businesses to embracing cloud technology?

It is interesting in terms of who we talk to. But there are the converts who are just 100% there and we have found private owner operators to be the most quick [to embrace cloud technology] as they recognise the value is immense when driving their global businesses. But then there are [others such as] government agencies who state that information shall not leave the boundaries of their country. But as Microsoft and Google build out their cloud infrastructure they will provide mechanisms by which they can provide geofences. So we will just piggy back on those. If people want that it will be possible - but for a cost premium.  

So will on-premises servers become a thing of the past?

No. We don’t bemoan the fact that businesses still like to have on-promises servers – there may be very good reasons why there are needed and it shouldn’t matter to us how users want to define their hybrid environments. They have the choice and we make our solutions work seamlessly across that hybrid environment – that is our mission. 

Infrastructure now realises that Totex is the big prize. Are you seeing a move towards owners demanding solutions across the asset lifecycle?

You certainly find pockets of enlightened owners – it starts in industries where there isn’t this big chasm across design-bid-build. And with industries where engineering is intertwined with operations it is easier for them to see the value. Take oil and gas where the cost of oil is forcing owners to be so much more efficient. When oil was $100 a barrel you did not have the time to reengineer your business processes. But now with profit margins being squeezed they are very open to looking at every bit of their business processes. 

Your new “optioneering” and “conceptioneering” tools are incredibly powerful and should allow designers to work through design option more quickly – but  is the industry set up skills wise to embrace this opportunity?

There will be an adoption phase. It requires engineers to have a different mindset – what is interesting is that consulting companies are coming to us because they are trying to provide more value to the owner – they are saying “don’t just hire us for our time and materials hire us for our expertise”. The value dimension is key – companies are trying to get out of that low cost hourly rate business. This is a great tool to have at their disposal.

As you create a “common environment across performance modelling and data” are we at the point of being software tool agnostic?

Certainly I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we are agnostic but we are not presupposing that it is our stack and only our stack in play. We could introduce a new tool and pay no heed to what is already out there or we can accept that we have competitors upstream and downstream of us. We introduce new tools and work hard to make them seamless. My developers have to figure out how do we get data into and out of [our competitors tools] in a Bentley standard way – and one of our key design philosophies is to do that on the way in and not by retrofitting just because a user has twisted our arm to do so.

As cloud services allow users access to more and more software is there a fear that the cost of software will rise?

The fact that you can use a tool doesn’t mean that you should. Controlling access by business process, by department or by person - read only vs read write – is where we will spend a lot of our time. Filters can already be defined on an enterprise level.

UK government has launched a new stretch target of October 2016 to validate and boost the quality of the data being gathered and used across the industry. Is data quality the next big challenge?

It’s a great point because getting the wrong information quicker really doesn’t help anyone. I do see and recognise data validation services as being pretty key. Another dimension that is going to become very important is digital rights management – specifying who can modify data, when and how the audit trail flows from it. The facts around “who changed what and when” is going to become something that we all have to do more work on and is an opportunity from out standpoint as a tool provider. 

To what extent do you see your work packaging applications start to mesh with other business management and Enterprise Resource Planning tools? 

Certainly the touch points are there today with procurement. Where you have touch points with businesses process and the work packages interact with ERP we need to have adapters for the workflow. So if someone is using an ERP tool and they want us to integrate I would say we could simply transfer information through a RESTful (Representational State Transfer) API (application programme interface).

What do you think will be the next biggest technology development to really drive the industry forward?

We are scratching the surface with what we can do with CONNECT and the big leap for us will be connecting up the engineering applications with sensor data and being able to make tools that can help with informed operational decisions. We have the design tools and the sensors. The minute the owners see the value of the engineering model during operations then they will demand it. 

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