Applying collective intelligence in the engineering sectorThe experience of Te.x
Te.x is a start-up founded with the aim of offering innovative engineering and architectural services. One of the aspects that makes the start-up especially avant-garde is a new model of organizing work that the founder, Maurizio Boi, defines as Co-operative Engineering. We discussed this with him.
Co-operative Engineering is triggered by a great deal of research on collective intelligence (or ingenuity). How are the principles of collective intelligence applied daily in Te.x and the projects it carries out? What are the features that distinguish this way of working from those in traditional engineering companies?
Michael Nielsen (physicist and programmer, author of scientific books) maintains that two epochs have to be distinguished for engineering – before and after Network Engineering (N.E.). We are currently in the transitional stage towards the latter, but there is a risk that this change will be irregular. Companies that have profited from the traditional methods hinder this transformation, regulating the system so that the passage is blocked, fearing that it may revolutionise a consolidated market and making it difficult for N.E. to express its true potential as they don’t understand that this is an opportunity for all.
A more open approach to design is not only an extraordinary idea but also a modus operandi which engineers and institutions can’t ignore. At TE.x, we’re different from these companies because we’ve understood how on-line tools can actively amplify collective intelligence, recognising the benefits that its application in the engineering field bring to the quality of projects and the speed with which they can be fulfilled. For us, the advantage of on-line co-operation is its ‘scalability’ – being able to find the right expert at the right time more quickly and easily, and also better qualified professionals than locally available ones. We can get in touch with people with the right know-how, who would otherwise be difficult to find, through our international network of experts. We’ve found that it’s easier to encourage the participation of specialists using on-line co-operation through micro-skills approaches, finding only those professionals with the specific skills necessary at the time through an algorithm. If the group set up becomes quite large and diversified, it acquires more overall talent than that of each individual member.
It’s obvious that it’s easier to find these ‘valued resources’ on-line rather than off-line. At TE.x, we’ve indicated the most effective attitudes that the open source co-operations have used to be scalable:
- an incessant commitment to working in a modular manner, trying out ingenious criteria to break down the overall load into simpler sub-activities;
- encourage small contributions, reducing the entrance barriers in the system connected to the difficulty in attracting professionalism for too extensive tasks;
- allow easy re-use of the work that the experts make available to aid other members of the group;
- use systems to concentrate the experts’ work on a certain contribution rather than another, directing attention to what is more important.
A ‘multi-sided’ platform that facilitates interaction and co-operation between participants was built to achieve these aims. Entering CollEngWorld means being part of an international group of professionals and companies from all fields of engineering, where on-line networking helps to increase the individual’s problem-solving abilities, going beyond the off-line co-operation methods and amplifying the collective intelligence.
Today, engineering design tools that invite the professional to organise project management in a new way are also spreading in Italy. One example is Building Information Modelling (BIM). How do these tools interact with the Co-operative Engineering approach? What experience does Te.x have on this?
The BIM model is the digital alter-ego of the real building, a ‘digital twin’ of what will be built and then managed which enables not only the players involved in the construction but also a myriad of professionals and companies, and also the future users, to be connected. There is a substantial difference from the traditional methods as these figures are not always involved in the process and, above all, the fundamental link in the chain, i.e. the users, was often omitted, running the risk of creating a work not targeted on their needs.
The use of an IT platform enables simpler organisation of the work flow and a faster check on the progress of the development between the different components of the design group. We chose to use a Cloud-based platform, developed ad hoc for the construction sector and designed to optimise the results, at TE.x to manage multi-specialist integrated engineering and architecture projects in the best way in co-ordination with many professionals. We can co-operate on the whole project with this system with a safe, complete solution through the immediate distribution of models and documents in the company and among the external members of the project team. In addition, the approach allows the information and the considerable number of documents in any format and size, and the relative updates, to be shared with the various project members in a controlled way. The revision of files is also simplified through a structured workflow which sets out the delivery terms and the control of revisions is automated. This type of organisation enables printing costs to be reduced by more than 75% and to have the project documents available and immediately visible with fast, simple searches. In addition, a further development of the system that we’re trying out at TE.x is to interface the BIM with a Blockchain (B.C.) environment that enables:
- implementation of decentralised consent systems, useful for validating the essential steps of the processes of design, fulfilment and maintenance of the work, where the ‘proofs of work’ are issued following checks made automatically, eliminating many intermediation organisms;
- remuneration connected to the process can be regulated through smart contracts, enabling fees corresponding to the work done to be automatically attributed to the people who have worked. This also happens in cases where the task performed is a micro-activity;
- recording of every significant step of the construction process with the relative dates (time stamping) on supports that cannot be altered (the ledger of things in B.C.), preventing hacking that could compromise the documents regulating the order.
The project co-operation platform thus enables the overall project to be enclosed in a single environment and the project information to be channelled to those directly involved, keeping a constant, more efficient check without losing information. The exchange of documentation and communications in the platform is traced without any possibility of error, an essential feature if legal disputes arise as the despatch, reception and reading of documents is certified. The platform also enables BIM models to be used very easily. They can be shared, displayed, co-ordinated, reviewed, marked and questioned enabling very high quality standards to be achieved and various advantages obtained for people using it at the design stage but particularly for those using it at the construction and management stages of the work.
Which of the TE.x projects best represents the design and organisation model of work that is a feature of the start-up? How was the project management of the project set out and what results have been achieved?
We can take an important frame agreement for the design of civil works as an example. The engineering company assigned contacted TE.x to define the layout of the project management. In this context, TE.x was able to find the resources compatible with the budgets available, which were specially limited because of the ‘aggressive’ discount offered during the tender. Instead of using the traditional channels, TE.x used the following strategies to make the resources available:
- a Project Manager (PM) was found in the engineering company to manage the whole frame agreement. The PM was trained by TE.x on the use of the innovative IT tools and its general operational philosophy so that s/he could carry out her/his work through the innovative tools and technologies available, becoming a sort of Digital Project Manager (DPM);
- the DPM found the order PM for each implementation contract through the Collengworld platform, as each contract was gradually confirmed. In turn, the contract PM carried out the work packaging, always through Collengworld, finding the necessary figures and relative budgets available and also the assets necessary for the development of the order;
- the professionals necessary were found and, depending on the budgets available and development times calculated, the smart contracts were finalised which enabled the relationships between PM, PE and all the professionals involved to be managed automatically;
- the trend in the order was then monitored in real time through the dashboards, resident in the Collengworld platform, using indicators relating to the technical development, costs and respect for the timing.
This type of work organization allowed important results to be achieved, such as the increase in production capacity which then enabled implementation contracts for more than Euro 3 million to be managed. In addition, a reduction in costs of about 30% was obtained also due to the drastic decrease in general expenses and the streamlining of the production process. Lastly, an improvement in the level of customer satisfaction was noted compared to that normally found in cases where traditional project management techniques have been used.