We know that large construction projects are complex and become more intricate all the time. They require an enormous amount of materials, labor, and heavy machinery to work together seamlessly. Construction professionals are always looking for methods to keep these projects on time and budget, and they use a variety of project controls methodologies/systems to help keep developments on track. These systems use people, processes, and digital tools to provide up-to-date information for all stakeholders and can bring clarity during what can be a chaotic time.
Benefits vs. Challenges
When done well, project controls can provide insights into an enormous number of areas, including planning, cost estimating, scheduling, and forecasting, while analyzing quality, risk, and other outcomes. They can provide a factual basis to rate things like labor or supplier performance. These controls can utilize a large number of metrics to assist project managers with identifying areas of potential concern and developing plans to mitigate any challenges. They are there to help ensure construction is completed on time and within budget, while having the highest quality possible by measuring progress, forecasting outcomes, and improving performance. They help the project manager and other stakeholders make decisions based on the most up-to-date information. Project controls can utilize a large number of metrics to assist project managers with identifying areas of potential concern and developing plans to mitigate any challenges.
However, there are several challenges to accurate and efficient project controls. There is no standardization for collecting and tracking metrics. Accordingly, some project managers may distrust the data, or there can be misunderstandings and miscommunication that can distort the status of development. This can have very real and tangible consequences, because the damage from erroneous performance measurements is typically not identified until the schedule and budget are nearly finished, so corrections may not be possible.
There are many different metrics that project controls can use. They are usually grouped into three categories: diagnostic, predictive, or diagnostic and predictive combined. Here are some examples.
- Schedule Performance Index (SPI): This essential diagnostic metric looks at actual construction progress compared to planned progress by analyzing how efficient resources (materials, equipment, and labor) are employed over a set period.
- Variance-at-Completion (VAC): This is a predictive metric that shows the project's current budget surplus or deficit. It illustrates the difference between the expected cost and the current estimated cost of the project.
- Cost Performance Index (CPI): Both a diagnostic and predictive metric, CPI looks at the budgeted cost of work on a project and what it actually costs.
Many projects utilize digital tools to help with project management. Frequently, a project will use Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Digital Twins (DT) software. They are both robust solutions that collect and manage various data points.
- BIM technology: BIM software fosters collaborative design and construction processes, while visualizing a project's physical features. Unlike traditional building plans that are 2D, BIM offers a 3D view that allows stakeholders to understand the spatial relationship in the building. More information can be added, with categories of this information referred to as dimensions. For example, 4D BIM enables the input of time or scheduling data to assist with the coordination of assembling various parts of a project, to help ensure the project stays on track. 5D BIM builds upon this to include cost-related information, showing construction progress and related expenses over time. However, a high level of detailed data is needed to power 5D BIM, so it may not be helpful for all projects. BIM software is powerful and incredibly useful for project management and risk analysis.
- DT technology: DT is a newer technology that integrates a number of BIM data points to create models for all aspects of a project. It can make a highly detailed digital model of a project that fuses design, engineering, and construction elements to improve efficiency during both assembly and completion of the project. The robust data and models can be updated in real time, improving collaboration between stakeholders even when in remote locations. It is a powerful information management system that can optimize a project's various needs and project management processes. DT utilizes artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, and other connected devices to collect data to update the 3D model.
Shepherding a large project from initial conception to the completion of construction can take several years and cost millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars. Finishing it on time and within budget requires a significant amount of planning and oversight. Even with the most sophisticated plan, there are always things like severe weather or labor unrest that can cause unexpected delays.
Today, the most likely issue may be on the supply side. A sudden shift in consumer demand resulting in a highly disproportionate impact on production is often referred to as “bullwhip effect,” a supply-chain phenomenon. While the commodity market has experienced the phenomenon due to COVID-19, the supply-demand imbalances are likely to become even greater and broader with increasing energy prices due to the current geopolitical climate. However, utilizing big data and project controls from the planning phase can mitigate these challenges, improve efficiencies, enhance quality, and help smooth out any kinks in the system. Embracing this methodology is not necessarily easy, but the benefits outweigh the challenges.