Greg Miller and Ray Fink lead the INEEL BechteLink development effort. Click here for more photos.
A Bechtel field engineer is inspecting a construction site in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The air is heavy with rain either just ending or about to start, or both. The light, filtered through the dense vegetation is tinted green. The engineer has been puzzling over a design feature and a possible improvement comes to mind. He reaches to his hard hat and clicks a few buttons there and begins speaking, gesturing to a support strut. He listens, points and continues. He flips open a handheld computer, downloads a drawing, and sketches some alterations. After sending the redlined version along with the video that he just shot to Frederick, Md., he catches up on some urgent email. A few minutes later, his office responds and he opens their attachment. The improvement works, is approved and will be incorporated into the ongoing construction. Fast track. He continues his inspection as it starts to rain.
This scenario is fiction, but the concepts behind it are not. Improving engineering, procurement and construction processes in the field through advanced information technologies is the backbone of an INEEL project called BechteLink. According to National Security's Advanced Information and Communication System employee Greg Miller, BechteLink's goal is to 'provide unfettered access to knowledge.'
BechteLink has three main objectives: deliver information when, where, and in the form needed; develop paperless construction and design office technology; and convert processes from sequential to near real time. Miller and colleague Ray Fink have teamed with others to deliver tools that will do just this.
In a nutshell, Miller and Fink analyze new technologies and select the emerging winners - what is or will rapidly become a commodity. Wireless data networks, handheld computers, digital signatures. They tie the latest and greatest hardware to Bechtel's existing data using human oriented, custom graphical interfaces. The end result is electronic replacements for outmoded paper processes offering significant savings.
"Construction is such a competitive environment, profits lie in doing it better, cheaper, faster," explains Miller. "Bechtel doesn't have time for tricks that don't work. We have to deliver products that are completely reliable."
Why the INEEL
Bechtel National, along with BWX Technologies and the Inland Northwest Research Alliance operate the INEEL for the Department of Energy. Bechtel has committed to conducting corporate-funded research and development projects of mutual interest at the INEEL. Bechtel issues a call for proposals addressing corporate concerns and researchers submit ideas for consideration. In the case of BechteLink, Bechtel fellows traveled to the INEEL for a 'think tank' session. They discussed high-level issues confronting the giant construction company with a diverse audience of INEEL researchers and scientists. Miller attended this session and responded with a white paper, introducing the BechteLink concept. Bechtel liked it and funded it through the CFRD program.
An unlikely couple on the surface, the marriage of Bechtel National and the INEEL is actually a match made in heaven. In this instance, INEEL information technology experts have written custom programming applications for decades and can leverage their expertise and existing products for quick turnaround. At the same time, the INEEL staff is willing and desirous to understand exactly how the global Bechtel operates, perhaps not a typical characteristic of university research organizations. BechteLink is set up to deliver both short-term products and long-term research. CFRD work products are shared - Bechtel gets the immediate products and INEEL can in turn apply the results to anything from military to environmental cleanup projects.
So step one for the INEEL computer engineers was putting on a becoming Bechtel field engineer's hat - understand the customer inside and out, work processes and business systems, strengths and areas for improvement. Miller and Fink traveled to construction sites and spoke with the men and women on the front line. They learned about the common denominators of time, cost, material status, tools and resources. They studied the current processes, which were largely paper-based and sequential and delved into Bechtel internal initiatives for process improvements.
Like pilgrims, they then traveled to halls of academia where they investigated cutting edge, long-term research conducted by Stanford University on paperless offices and shared electronic workspaces. Industry was the next stop for the BechteLink team.To quote Miller, "they performed triage" on the emerging technologies, selecting those products on which they would build a suite of tools.
43 months of concrete
The first tool rolling out is the virtual Concrete Pour Card, an application for the Department of Energy Hanford site, where over the next three-plus years Bechtel will construct the Waste Treatment Plant. The Concrete Pour Card uses XML technology and computational knowledge-based systems, and presents them to the engineer in a familiar package via graphic user interfaces. The tool automates the concrete pour authorization process, accessing existing Bechtel data over the Internet and allowing the field engineer to remain connected to Bechtel's computer network while in the field. Thousands of yards of concrete will be poured over months and months. This simple tool will exact huge savings.
The objectives of deploying the concrete pour card go beyond the value of automating that one process. The Waste Treatment Plant is the pilot for evaluating the wirelessly networked hand-held computer based virtual card concept. The BechteLink team is looking for feedback from the field on the strengths and weaknesses. Team members want to know if the display is adequate, if the virtual cards are useful, if it's robust enough and if it's reliable. Field engineers will test it for handwritten note taking and the potential for voice input. And after weaknesses are identified and corrected, more work begins.
BechteLink will "productionize" the concrete pour card, creating a foundation on which to build many other handheld wireless applications. Miller sees Bechtel IT professionals using the INEEL's designed and developed modularized concepts to roll out automated construction processes ranging from excavation to cable pulling.
In 2002, the BechteLink team plans to deploy a wireless data network infrastructure and test the concrete pour card on not only on the handheld system but also on electronic-ink based tablets and touch-screen kiosk computers deployed at the construction site. The team will also choose a design-change-notice scenario and create a full collaborative solution from design office to project office to the field. They want to re-engineer sequential, paper-based processes to fully benefit from networked, distributed, computer-based processes.
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.