The infrastructure industry is headed toward a cliff. According to the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., an estimated $60 trillion investment will be needed to fund global infrastructure over the next 20 years, yet only $20 trillion is available to meet this need. At the same time, the growing complexity of infrastructure projects and corresponding risk makes funding infrastructure projects a difficult sell for private investors.

Although these challenges are daunting, Rich Humphrey, director of industry strategy and business development for engineering, natural resources and infrastructure at San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk, believes there’s a silver lining. “The way we need to get out of this is by using BIM for infrastructure as a transformational vehicle for the industry,” he said.

Humphrey believes there are three reasons BIM will transform the infrastructure industry in 2013.

1. BIM allows project teams to better manage complexity by improving efficiency. “Although the understanding of what BIM is varies widely, we see a lot of momentum because the owners of engineering and enterprise firms all see the value of the BIM process,” Humphrey said. “It’s easier to understand what you’re designing and find a way to describe it in 3D. That model also has all the related data behind it, so you know what the objects are as well as their relationship to other objects in the model. You also have the ability to create many more alternatives and then quickly compare those alternatives using simulation, analysis and optimization tools … which allows you to really understand the performance of your project before you ever build it.”

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In a traditional design process, much of the information is lost when a project moves between different phases and disciplines. With BIM, continuity is maintained through the entire lifecycle of the project, which helps the project team better understand the design intent and enhances collaboration and coordination. BIM also changes how the project team engages the shareholders. “If you can make something that’s clearer and more consistent in terms of the data, show it in 3D in the context of what’s real—for example, by virtually driving a road before it’s built—and communicate your design not just within the project team but to the public, that is amazingly powerful in terms of conveying the information in a way that the public is going to understand,” Humphrey said.

2. BIM helps solve the fundability challenge by improving communication and transparency. “From an investor’s perspective, you’re showing me a model, and you’ve done predictive analytics on numerous alternative designs, so I have confidence that the team is driving to optimize the design and reduce risk,” Humphrey said. “I also understand the result so I can better predict my ROI. Engaging the owner and the public leads to better fundability.”

3. Technology breakthroughs make BIM more powerful. As an example, Humphrey points to Project Mercury, an infrastructure solution from Autodesk that combines desktop, cloud and mobile technology. “It’s a really powerful, scalable tool that enables people to pull GIS, satellite imagery, laser scanned information into one environment, and then allows the designer and engineer through software to start analyzing alternative design in the context of all the existing conditions in a 3D environment,” he said. “It’s highly visual and changes the way users interact with the model.”

Cloud capabilities also enhance the value of BIM. When all stakeholders are able to coordinate on a single model hosted in one place and can access the model at any time during the process, decision-making and computational power improves dramatically. And once the model is in the cloud it can be accessed on any device, allowing real-time BIM in the field. “By designing more rapidly and more efficiently in a real context, users make fewer mistakes and reduce their risks,” Humphrey said. “They can analyze the results and predict the performance, and ultimately have a better means of communicating design intent either within their design team or to the owner so everyone is on the same page. That’s how we end up with an optimized project result.”

Humphrey believes these benefits will help close the gap in infrastructure spending and will lead to increased adoption of BIM for infrastructure in 2013. “Owners are specifying BIM on infrastructure projects now … because they’re seeing some of the efficiencies that have now been documented on the building side,” he said. “They see an even greater potential for savings and risk reduction in infrastructure.”