Interview: Malcolm Walter, COO Bentley Systems on the future of BIM

Software specialist Bentley Systems holds its annual Year in Infrastructure conference next week having just launched its new Connect Edition software suite which it believes will help move the industry beyond BIM. 

Malcolm Walter, Bentley Systems

Interview by Antony Olver

Embracing BIM requires a cultural shift – is it happening?

BIM is about taking information and making it useful in the operation and maintenance of the asset – that is where all the money will be made and saved so if we can do that well it really is the holy grail for me. If we can convince an owner that engineering content matters to them then we will be selected – it doesn’t happen every time. But just competing at the tool level – my structural analysis tool versus yours – is a hard fought race.

What is driving the infrastructure sector towards this digitally enabled future?

The fundamental shift for me was when the UK mandated the use of BIM. That made it a global conversation. When the UK government said here is your five year notice it created a conversation everywhere. That was the number one game changer. And then Crossrail said that it was going to build a physical railway and a virtual railway - no one had ever said that before so we had to figure out what that meant. We built the Crossrail Academy and took the supply chain through it and between Crossrail and ourselves we have taught them what it all means.

Will other owners follow Crossrail’s example and work closely with a firm like Bentley?

If you are going to be the purveyor of content management it has to be an accepted fact that data will come from everywhere. Our job is to manage that data well and manage those interconnections. Crossrail went as far as to mandate the tools and while it was great for us it cannot be the norm. [Infrastructure professionals] will never stop using other tools so we had better embrace them.

You have just launched the CONNECT Edition. How will this help the market? 

The underpinnings of the CONNECT Edition are that we should have a common modelling environment. Everybody knows the pain of not having one. The fact is that we also now have a common performance environment and it is becoming clear that we really need that. The largest engineering firms used to have a fiercely decentralised model – they would acquire businesses and let them get on with it believing that the local market knows best. But the ability to act globally has changed that. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world any more so you have to be fiercely centralised.

Is it a catch up or leap ahead?

In our space [this common modelling and performance environment] is very new and a leap ahead. But we are not inventing something that others haven’t been doing. In car manufacturing the idea that you would use an integrated project team was solved decades ago - now it is the only way that you can deliver a car. But we have held on to the notion that to deliver an infrastructure asset requires a unique project, in a unique place with a unique team.

Who do you compete with?

Bentley’s mission has always been around asset lifecycle but our predominant source of revenue has been from design. But shifts in technology have now created opportunities that didn’t exist before. So we will continue to compete in the design space but as the industry grasps what the UK has mandated – moving from BIM level 2 toward level 3 and beyond – the ability to move through construction to operations is what is going to matter most and those aren’t our traditional competitors. 

Who will pay for software in the future?

Often the client pays as a way to enforce the standard they are looking for, not really at the level of tools but to get information in certain ways. We are seeing this in the oil and gas and in the department of transport space in the US. They say that as they are already paying for the software they might as well pay for the software that they want. Is that the way things will end up? Maybe.

Is adopting BIM more a cultural than technology challenge?

BIM is about process – forget the tool. Unless you embrace the need for a change in process the tools aren’t going to matter. 

So is that your challenge – persuading owners to care about asset management?

That is exactly the conversation. The degree of receptivity is related to the sophistication of the users and what is going on in their surrounding environment. In the UK it is comparatively easy as it is in much of the developed world. But elsewhere we are often speaking a different language – it is missionary work.

How long before owners truly embrace asset management?

We still have a lot of business being done in the world in 2D so it takes time. But asset owners will start to realise that they can more competitively operate their assets. For example South Australia Water uses its Amulet software to do predictive analytics and understand how it should operate its assets. And as a regulated industry if government sees that one business is doing it that way at a much lower cost then there is a reason to change. Those kinds of things can shift an entire industry and we should expect it to happen.  

To what extent is there still a fear that technology will cost jobs?

The space that firms are working in today is so competitive and has such razor thin margins that they cannot think about offering anything that is not in the contract. But they are all looking at how to offer more to their clients – either on the conceptual side at the beginning via optioneering to get a better solution or by providing information that will allow clients to operate assets more efficiently. That is what everyone is talking about – not how to earn 3.15% margin rather than 3% by doing it  faster.

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