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The engineering industry has witnessed great change and turbulence over recent years. Today's generation of estimators and engineers are under pressure to do more with less resource and adapt quickly to change. It is vital that engineering and construction companies (E&Cs) embrace methodologies to meet customer requirements and cope with new economic conditions. Being at the forefront of technology enables contractors to be more flexible and meet owner-operator needs in a highly competitive market.

Integrated economic evaluation software with built-in engineering and cost content produces comprehensive, accurate conceptual estimates. Empowering estimators with cutting-edge technology enables them to rapidly and confidently evaluate capital investment projects early in the design process, understand all the economic implications of engineering decisions and manage projects more effectively.

Sometimes companies have their own estimating system. However, the great advantage with integrated, robust and specialist economic evaluation software is that it provides a common platform to accurately estimate a project throughout its lifecycle, from early concept through construction. Project specifications can quickly be set up and also allow estimators to focus on communicating information between the engineers and the estimating software. This clear communication on scope is the vital ingredient that determines the cost. 

Engineers inside the system

The adoption of scalable, intelligent 'engineering-in-the-box' estimating and FEED software captures knowledge during each phase of the project lifecycle.

With the advanced model-based estimating systems available today, users have access to a complete knowledge base engineering design tool that produces cost based on first principles. It is an opportunity to design a plant using the application and this can be benchmarked against the process engineer's design to ensure accuracy and consistency.

This type of tool is like having an engineer inside the computer that is as good as a team of disciplined engineers within the company. For example, it can instruct how to develop single line diagrams, teach how to organize and put together an electrical system. Alternatively, it is like a structural engineer that will show best practices for the design of structures and similarly in piping. Therefore, all the engineering knowledge is embedded within the software tool and helps the estimator to engineer design and cost and validate information provided by engineering disciplines. The years of embedded knowledge within the tool help E&Cs to accurately and quickly reduce estimating uncertainty in bidding costs for design/build of a chemical plant.

Communication is paramount throughout a project. The alignment between the E&C and the owner-operator is vital to ensure estimates are accurate and meet project specifications. An advanced model-based estimating solution allows both parties to use the same common database and language. Accuracy comes not from the slide rule, but from the communication of what is entered into the economic evaluation software. This is what defines the accuracy of an estimate and not, for example, whether there are 2.3 man hours per linear foot of piping or 2.4 man hours. It is not the units that determine the success of the cost estimate, it is what information that is clearly included within the estimate (i.e. too much or too little cubic yards of concrete).

With complete transparency, the E&C can demonstrate to customers detailed estimates on a project. With a high level of accuracy, estimators give the owner-operators confidence that the estimate meets their needs and that they are working with a partner that can fulfil the engineering on time and to budget. When changes occur, these estimation tools can cope with adjustments to the estimate at a click of a button and within minutes deliver a new estimate (versus days or weeks when using traditional spreadsheets).

Using advanced economic evaluation tools allows E&Cs to increase their incomes by up to 50 percent more than using traditional tools because the functionalities can perform the work of five people and be considerably more accurate throughout the project estimating lifecycle. Whether the project is for greenfield or brownfield projects (on-shore or off-shore), model-based estimating systems are ideal for revamps and patching to gain more out of existing plants. These tools are able to easily break-down capital expense due to its power and reports can also be generated very quickly.

Once the estimate is set up properly inside the model-based software, the estimator can make changes very effectively. For example, this could involve tank farms for a client, where the size of the tank's size, location and geometry layout and any other aspects of the configuration are altered. Using these solutions, the estimator can make changes within minutes for every option instructed by the client. This would not be possible using traditional spreadsheets.

Empowering the next generation

Attracting qualified employees is a major challenge to the industry today. There is a large population of employees close to retirement and there are not enough qualified engineers to fill the gap. Companies hiring and training their own estimators need to get less experienced staff up the estimating learning curve. This is achieved much faster by empowering users with the right economic evaluation technology, as opposed to adopting a more traditional system. For new users, these types of solutions are like a self-learning process helping staff to be exposed not just to estimating, but also to the total project concept. Therefore, less effort is required to remove business bottlenecks from the lack of skilled estimators, which supports knowledge building and enables staff to be better employees.

Built-in knowledge delivers enormous benefits. Advanced economic evaluation system empowers estimators to do more and achieve more timely and accurate estimates in collaboration with process engineering design. The templates and databases that are generated from using these solutions provides the next generation of estimators a tremendous platform to add immediate value due to the inherent capability within the software product.

Ron Beck is engineering director with AspenTech.