A New Era for Project Management: Is Technology Taking the Field by Storm?

On Nov. 21, 2014, the University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering celebrated a milestone: the ceremonial groundbreaking of what now stands as the tallest academic building on the College Park campus, A. James Clark Hall.

In less than two years’ time, the UMD community witnessed the transformation of a parking lot into a 184,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility to foster world-class engineering research and educational programs. The building itself is a marvel in structural engineering. Behind the scenes, one of construction’s “latest and greatest” tools – virtualization – was put to use, making all the difference in the design, construction, and building maintenance planning process.

For many, the words “virtual reality” call to mind video gaming. In truth, “VR” has been used for everything from preparing soldiers for combat with the help of battlefield simulations, to allowing NBA basketball players the opportunity to practice free throws from the comfort of their own living room.

And, in the engineering world, virtual reality is changing the way buildings are designed and brought to life.

“Virtual – and augmented – reality applications in construction project management are among the hottest topics being discussed by academic researchers and industry practitioners alike,” said Mirosław Skibniewski, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Professor in Construction Engineering and Management and a UMD Project Management Center for Excellence faculty member. “The journal Automation in Construction reports each year on new technical developments in the field, and annual conferences on this very topic have been held around the world for the last 16 years.”

“My job is constantly evolving,” added Brian Krause who, as Clark Construction Group’s Director for Virtual Design and Construction, works to find new ways to apply cutting-edge technology to improve all aspects of the building process. Just this May, Krause shared his insights as a session speaker during UMD’s Project Management Symposium.

“The field is constantly changing and it’s getting better and more efficient,” he said. “The tools we use are getting better. Computers are getting faster. There are new things like virtual reality and augmented reality and drones and 3D printing and big data… and, it’s all changing the way we communicate through every step of the [construction] process.”

Under Krause’s watch, Clark Construction used “VR” to help with the design and planning process of Maryland’s own Clark Hall.

Long before Krause donned his first “VR” headset, however, he encountered a digital tool that’s changed the way project managers operate in the construction realm: building information modeling, otherwise known as BIM.

Put simply, BIM is a 3D model-based process that allows architects, engineers, and construction managers to plan, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure. For civil engineers, BIM is a leap of technological advancement from CADD – computer-aided design and drafting – the software that essentially first replaced drawing by hand. Whereas CADD allows engineers to work with objects and dimensions, BIM takes things a step further: objects are not merely objects; rather, they are interactive elements that respond to a user’s design changes and take into account a wealth of building data.

“Building Information Modeling is a rapidly advancing application of technology that not long ago we used to only dream about,” said John Cable, Director of the University of Maryland Project Management Center for Excellence. “Today, architects, engineers, construction managers, subcontractors and suppliers have realized that utilizing BIM is the smart way to develop projects. In addition to the visualization capability, we can run many different models that analyze options for the designers and provide data that can lead to the best combination of decisions for the owner.”

And, looking beyond a site’s construction, BIM not only enables architects and builders to plan for possible hazards – such as weather or normal wear-and-tear of different fixtures – it also allows facilities management teams to keep one step ahead of the building maintenance process.

And yet, there’s still so much room for growth.

“We’re just at the beginning of this space in the industry, and it all revolves around data,” Krause said. “[Beyond BIM and VR] there is also augmented reality, drones, 3D printing, censors, and the internet of things (IoT)… there are so many different devices for so many different things that can shape the field. Central to all of it is data; how we automate that data, automate some of the analysis, and then feed that into potential robotics as they relate to construction.”

Outside the scope of construction management, project managers across all fields and career levels are feeling the positive impact of technology.

“For more than four decades, we relied solely upon time and cost as the only two metrics needed to manage a project,” the International Institute for Learning’s Dr. Harold Kerzner told past UMD Project Management Symposium attendees. “We knew that time and cost alone could not determine the project’s health, nor were they a good indicator of project success or failure, [but there were no other metrics available.] Today, however, we are entering a new era in project management.”

One of the most recent developments in project management is a shift toward paperless project management, Kerzner noted.

“We’re now trying to eliminate as much documentation as possible,” he said. “What will be the replacement for paper? The answer is dashboards on your computer.” Kerzner also discussed the significance of what he calls “distributed collaboration,” and noted that social media will play a bigger role in project management moving forward.

“One thing we don’t want is for people to have to read through pages of reports to find out the status of a project,” he said. “We need to be able to go paperless. We need to provide metrics so that executives can make decisions based on evidence rather than guesswork. The growth of project management is inevitable, and the definition of success is changing.

Recognizing the myriad ways technology is shaping – and reshaping – project management, the University of Maryland Project Management Center for Excellence offers a practice-oriented Master of Engineering in Project Management program designed to assist engineers and technical professionals in the development of their careers and to provide the expertise needed in today’s rapidly changing technology environment. Now in its eleventh year of operation, the Center offers 16 areas of concentration or options in addition to Project Management that cover a broad spectrum of engineering technology that reflects faculty experience and changing needs within the professional engineering community. All courses are offered in both an online and classroom formats for student convenience and flexibility. More information on the programs available at the Center can be found on the UMD Project Management Center of Excellence website.

Additionally, the Project Management Center for Excellence hosts the University of Maryland’s annual Project Management Symposium each spring to bring together experts in areas ranging from agile and IT, and people in projects, to areas such as construction management, BIM, and big data. The Center’s fourth annual symposium is set to take place May 4-5, 2017 and will feature a heavy emphasis on technology in project management. Registration is now open, and more information is available online. Individuals and organizations who are interested in being included in program sessions are also invited to submit abstracts of papers and/or presentations.

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