The future of project controls

Last week I participated in two PUXX panel discussions in Perth and Sydney focused on predicting the influence of technology on project controls.  The range of subjects covered ranged from drones and remote monitoring to virtual reality.

Many of the topics discussed offered better ways to do things we already do, provided we can make effective use of the data generated in ever increasing quantities – significant improvements but essentially ‘business-as-usual’ done better. The aspect I want to focus on in this post is the potential to completely reframe the way project schedules are developed and controlled when existing ‘gaming technology’ and BIM are synthesised.

The current paradigm used for critical path scheduling is a (dumbed-down) solution to a complex set of problems required to allow the software to run on primitive mainframe computers in the late 1950s – the fundamentals have not changed since! See: A Brief History of Scheduling.

The underlying assumption is a project consists of a set of activities each with a defined duration and depending on the logical relationship between the activities, some are ‘critical’ others have ‘float’.  The basic flaw in this approach can be demonstrated by looking at the various options open to a schedule to define the work involved in 3 simple foundations involving excavation and mass concrete fill.


All four of the above options above are viable alternatives that may be chosen by different schedulers to describe the work using CPM, and none of them really describe what actually happens. The addition of more links would help but even then the real situation which is one resource crew visits three locations in turn and excavates the foundations, a second crew follows and places the concrete with some options for overlapping, parallel working and possibly synchronising the actual pouring of all three foundations on the same day…….. Optimising the work of the crews is the key to a cost effective outcome and this depends on what follows their work.  For more on resource optimisation see: Advances in computer software offer the opportunity to develop a new way of working.

The starting point for the hypothesis outlined I this post is 4D BIM (Building Information Modelling). Last month I was in London working on the final edits to the second edition of the CIOB’s book, Guide to Good Practice in the Management of Time in Complex Projects (due for publication in 2017 as The Management of Time in Major Projects). One of the enhancements in the second edition is an increased focus on BIM. To assist our work a demonstration of cutting edge 4D BIM was provided Freeform.

Their current capabilities include:

  • The ability to model in real time clashes in working space provided the space needed for each crews work is parameterised. Change the timing of one work crew and the effect on others in a space is highlighted.
  • The ability to view the work from any position at any time in the construction process; allowing things such as a tower crane driver’s actual line of sight to be literally ‘seen’ at different stages of the construction.
  • The relatively normal ability to import schedule timings from a range of standard tools to animate the building of the model, and the ability to feedback information derived from processes such as the identification of clashes in the use of working space using
  • The space occupied by temporary works and various pieces of equipment can be defined and clashes with permanent works identified over time.
  • Finally the ability for a person to see and move around within the virtual model using the same type of 3D virtual reality goggles used by many gaming programmes. The wearer is literally immersed in the model.

For all of this in action on a major rail project see:

Moving into the world of game playing, there are many different games that allow players in competition, or collaboration, to ‘build’ cities, empires, fortifications, farms, etc. These games know the resources available to the players and how many resources will be required to construct each new element in the game – if you don’t have the resources, you can’t build the new asset.

Combining these two concepts opens up the possibility for a completely new approach to scheduling physical projects that involve the deployment of resources to physical locations to undertake work. The concept of location-based scheduling is not new, it was used in the 1930s to construct the Empire State Building (see: Line of Balance) and is still widely used.  For more on location-based scheduling see: Location-Based Management for Construction: Planning, Scheduling, and Control by Prof. Russell Kenley.

How these concepts tie into BIM starts with the model itself.  A BIM model consists of a series of parameterised objects. Each object can contain data on its size, weight, durability, cost, maintainability, carbon footprint, etc. As BIM develops many of these objects will come from standard libraries created by suppliers and subcontractors. Change an object, for example, replace windows from manufacturer “A” with similar Windows from manufacturer “B” and the model is update and potential issues with sizes, fixings and waterproofing can be identified. It is only a small step from this point to add parameters related to the resources needed to undertake the work of installation.

With this information and relatively minor enhancements to current BIM capabilities, once the engineering model is reasonably complete a whole new paradigm for planning work opens up.


To plan the work the ‘planning team’ put on their virtual reality headsets and literally ‘walk’ onto the site.  As they start to locate temporary works and begin the building process the model is tracking the use of resources and physical space in real time. The plan is developed based on the embedded parameters in the fully integrated 3D model.

Current 4D imports a schedule ‘shows you’ the effect.  Using the proposed gaming approach and parameterized objects you can literally build the project in the virtual space and either see the consequences on resource loading or be limited by resource availability.  A whole bunch of games do this already, add in existing clash detection capabilities (but applied to workers using the space) and you change the whole focus of planning a project. Decisions can be made to adjust the size of resource crews and the flow of work can be optimised to balance the competing objectives of cost efficiency, time efficiency and resource optimisation.

The proposed model is a paradigm shift away from CPM and its arbitrary determination of activities and durations to a process focused on the smooth flow of resources through work areas. The computational base will be focused on resource effectiveness and resource utilisation. Change ‘critical path’ to ‘critical resources’, eliminate the illusion of ‘float’ but look for underutilised resources and resource waiting time. To optimise the work, different scenarios can be stored, replayed and edited – the ultimate ‘what-if’ experience.

The concept of schedule density ties in with this approach nicely; initial planning is done for the whole project at the ‘low density’ level with activity durations of several weeks or months setting out the overall ‘time budget’ for the project and establishing the strategic flow of work.  As the design improves and more information becomes available, the schedule is enhanced first to ‘medium density’ and then to ‘high density’. The actual work is controlled by the ‘high density’ part of the schedule. For more on ‘schedule density’ see:

Where this concept gets really interesting is in the control of the work.  The medium and high density elements of the schedule are built using the same ‘virtual reality’ process as the overall schedule, therefore each object in the overall BIM model can include data on the resources allocated to the work, the sequence of work and the time allowed. Given workers on BIM-enabled projects already use various PDAs to access details of their work, the same tablet or smart device can be used to tell the workers their next job and how long that have to complete it. When they complete the task, updating the BIM model with that progress information updates the schedule, tells the crew their next job and tells the next resources planned to move into the area that the space is available. The schedule and the 3D model are the same entity.

Similarly, off-site manufacturing and design lead-times can be integrated into the dataset.  Each manufactured item can have its design, manufacture and transport and approval times associated with the element making the development of an off-site works / procurement schedule a simple process to extract the report once the schedule is set.  Identifying delays in the supply chain and dealing with changes in the timing of installation become staigtforward.

When inevitable problems occur, the project management team have the ideal tool to work through solutions and determine the optimum way forward, as soon as the new schedule is agreed, the BIM model already holds the information.

One of the key concepts in ‘schedule density’ is that any work planned for the short-term future has to be based on the actual performance of the crews doing the work. In a BIM enabled scheduling system this can also be automated. The work content of each activity is held in the model as is the crew assigned to the work. As soon as the work crew’s productivity can be measured, the benchmark values used in the original planning can be updated with real data. Where changes in performance are needed to deal with slippages and productivity issues these can be properly planned and incorporated into the schedule based on when the implemented changes can be expected to occur.

I’m not sure if this is BIM2 or BIM++ but these ideas are not very far in advance of current capabilities – all we need now is a software developer to take on the ideas and make them work.

These concepts will be harder to apply to ‘soft projects’ but the planning paradigms in soft projects have already been shaken up by Agile. But integrating 3D modelling with an integrated capability for real 4D interaction certainly seem to make sense for projects where the primary time management issue is the flow of resources in the correct sequence through a defined series of work locations in three dimensions.   What do you think???

36 responses to “The future of project controls

  1. Very, very interesting. Now I am writing an article about how CPM and scheduling try to do “their best” to describe reality but every now and them it is not enough and it seems like “Matrix flaws” like in the trilogy of Matrix movies. What can we do?

  2. Manuel, what exactly did you mean when wrote that “CPM and scheduling try to do “their best” to describe reality but every now and them it is not enough”?

  3. Pat, we create project model that can be used for project performance simulation taking into account all project parameters and constraints.
    Your example is simple to model in Spider Project and I I don’t see the difference between different approaches (CPM, work flow, etc.) because as the result a certain set of mathematical conditions shall be entered and optimization algorithms will try to find the best possible solution.
    If some approach is not able to model some conditions then we shall know about this and use this approach only with projects where these conditions do not exist.
    You wrote about new ways to enter initial data (using BIM instead of drawings).
    But in any case the result shall and will look like the same mathematical model consisting of many parameters and inequalities.

    • Vladimir,

      Whilst I know and like Spider Project you do yourself a major disservice by pretending a scheduling tool, even one as good as Spider, is a fully integrated 3D design tool. If you actually read the post you will find the proposal is radically different to the ‘business-as-usual’ model you are discussing.


  4. Pat, you did not understand my post.
    I did not write about integration though Spider Project was integrated with Revit. Integration is very useful, no doubts.
    I wrote that 3D model creates an input to scheduling. Different way to input initial data does not change the scheduling algorithms and scheduling results. I did not find completely new approach to scheduling, just new approach for entering input data..

    • The proposed model is a complete paradigm shift away from CPM and its arbitrary determination of activities and durations to a process focused on the smooth flow of resources through work areas the computational base will be completely different focused on resource effectiveness and resource utilization. Change ‘critical path’ to ‘critical resources’, eliminate the illusion of ‘float’ but look for underutilized resources and resource waiting time.

      • Pat, but you describe what we do more than 20 years.
        Did you read about resource critical path, resource constrained floats, resource assignment floats and critical assignments (not resources!!!), resource constrained schedule optimization?
        Do you know that in Spider Project activity durations are calculated basing on activity volumes of work and assigned resource productivity (do you call this effectiveness?).
        Look at my paper prepared for PMI Europe 2001 where I have wrote about resource critical path and assignment floats
        and a paper prepared for PMI Global Congress North America 2005 where you may read about activity volumes, resource productivity and activity duration determination that is not arbitrary.
        If this is a paradigm shift it was made in the early 90-s.
        By the way we also take into account space restrictions in our schedules.
        BIM visualization shows space problems but good schedule model avoids them.

      • Yes, but you are still focused on activities in schedules hosted in a scheduling tool that cannot be used or understood by anyone who is not a professional scheduler. The paradigm outlined in the post is as disruptive to scheduling as Uber has been to traditional taxi hire – it’s time to move into a new age of working. BIM has revolutionized design, is already producing savings of up to 20% in construction costs and will revolutionize supply chains and facilities management. Time and resource management should become a key part of this new, integrated, way of working.

      • Pat,
        I agree with the statement that BIM suggested different way for input to schedule model and schedule visualization that is more clear for people that are not professionals. But it does not change the scheduling itself.
        In any case input data are transormed in the same set of parameters and inequations and the same algorithms will be used.
        And as I wrote earlier our experience showed that construction managers (not only professional schedulers) still prefer to work with the Gantt Charts as more simple tool they understand very well. But they proudly show their 3D schedules to unexperienced clients.
        BIM suggests new ways of entering schedule data and schedule visualization, no doubts. The scheduling itself (models, algorithms) are the same.

  5. Pat,
    you wrote that CPM is a simplistic model and I totally agree with you.
    But Manuel wrote about CPM and scheduling.
    Scheduling is not restricted by CPM. Real life models are much more complex. And I am curious about the complexities of realities that scheduling software is not able to model.
    Some examples would be helful.

    • We are talking at cross purposes. The 70 year old paradigm that pretends a project consists of a series of activities with float is effective but dated. You cannot walk onto a project site and see the activities in place on-site with their float values and other attributes. People and equipment are working on the actual job, doing work in a physical space. The CPM model with, or without various computations around resources is a very simple representation of what is actually happening. Moving to a fully integrated virtual environment with multi-dimensional capabilities and built-in intelligence (similar to many of the games already in existence) makes planning the work an integral part of the overall design process – there will no longer be a need for a CPM schedule.

      Disruptive technologies do not improve existing paradigms they completely replace them with something new that was impossible to conceive before the technology evolved. For example Uber -v- the old taxi industry.

      • Uber: cars are the same, drivers are the same, driving is the same, an input is different.
        Forget about CPM, talk about scheduling. Resource constrained schedule optimization is a complex task that requires mathematical model.
        The model requires initial data, these data may be collected different ways (from drawings, BIM, VR, expert judgement, etc.).
        Scheduling itself may be based on CPM, resource leveling heuristic, optimization methods, simulation, etc. What new method of scheduling do you suggest?
        BIM and VR themselves do not create resource constrained schedules that depend on many factors including those that are absent in BIM. I still don’t understand this.

  6. My precise point – a paradigm shift in the way scheduling is done!

  7. This looks a lot like using technology to get people to do things they currently gloss over because it takes too much work. The work breakdown structure is where I see the majority of benefit of this solution, and it does look good based on the article. In my experience when I ask to see a work breakdown structure I am either given a Gantt chart or schedule of accounts. I am not sure that this is a paradigm shift, more like an assist to get people to do what they should be doing anyway.


  8. Hello from Perth Pat,

    I would be very interested to know your thoughts on the software Sentient Computing is developing here for maintenance planning called Plan-It 3D.

    We model a clients plant in a gaming engine and import a schedule.
    Animations are then created and linked to tasks.

    Originally designed for Shutdown Planning it is quickly developing and I see no reason it could not be incorporated into construction projects in the future.

    A youtube video can be found here and a case study on our website

    It’s a shame you couldn’t have come out and seen our work in person. Any time your back in Perth we would love to show you what we do.


  9. I am wholeheartedly in favor of making the planning data more accessible and interactive.

    I am struck by the juxtaposition of the photograph, where the team is a bystander to someone wearing blinders. When VR technologies spread to the point where everyone is participating that will be a good thing.

    What may accelerate acceptance of the paradigm shift is the growth of patience to plan. In these times where WBS’s are ignored and agile is fragile, having the space (virtual or not) to collaborate in teams and being familiar with and able to visualize and traverse the time dimension is crucial.

    Else we can recreate the tragedy of the commons.

    Thanks for posting!

    • The photograph is the Chairman of Network Rail UK walking through a 31Km mainline upgrade project – in the gaming world multiple interactive VR sessions are already ‘in-play’, the project world has a way to go…….

      • Pat,
        We are also working on something we are calling Design Review were individuals can review a early design and leave input either via text or voice from within a virtual world.
        Multiple users can be using it (using VR headsets or from desktop) from anywhere in the world much as you describe.
        More so for early stage planning and input from stakeholders at this point.
        So maybe not as far to go as you think.

  10. I am the Corporate Planning Manager for Bechtel, one of the leading EPC companies in the industry. We I am working on a BIM Proof of concept for complex industrial builds. I would like to engage with you on the virtual reality philosophy. Look forward to some effective collaboration. Thank you

  11. An excellent post Pat. I was sorry not to get to meet you in person at the Perth PUXX last week. I am fascinated by the concept of using VR in planning and control and your discussion in the panel session really got me thinking differently. It makes perfect sense that we start to implement the huge power in gaming and put it to real world use.

    It is evident to me that despite many years of planning software implementation that there is something fundamentally wrong with either the way we use it, or with the concept. There are many statistics ‘out there’, and whether or not we believe them, the overriding impression is that the vast majority of projects still do not succeed in delivering to time, cost and quality despite the implementation of sophisticated software tools. How then can we say that the tools and the techniques we use today are really working and how much longer can we paper up the cracks before the building collapses around us? Some may propose that lack of training and proper grounding in planning practice is lacking. Maybe. However, I beginning to think that we may have been conditioned, with an almost Orwellian attitude, to believe that CPM/CPA is right, and all other methods are bad, and you use them at your own peril. Using planning software tools with CPM, in my case P6, is potentially better than not planning at all and I fully support it’s use as a practicable option for many project teams, but I it’s far from being a complete solution in it’s own right.

    Being able to work in a virtual world is truly exciting, and with the opportunity to bring in progress measurement with remote monitoring, the future of project controls could be awesome. 4D planning has been around for almost two decades, yet I’ve never seen it in practice either in the UK or Australia. Integrating game tech may literally be the game changer we need to finally turn the tide on project success.

  12. You lost me in the main article when you said “…can make effective use of the data generated in ever increasing quantities…”
    The problem with Project Controls in today’s world is the ever increasing number of significant digits used for data reporting and control.
    When I started, the first decision by the scheduler was “Velum or Mylar?”. One of my last assignments, a $17 million invoice was returned “Not Approved” due to a one penny difference between the invoice detail and the invoice summary.
    I’ll stay with Mylar, please.

    • I’m not sure of your point Dennis – idiots in accounts departments have always existed and have absolutely nothing to do with the post or the ability to make intelligent use of data generated by the IoT and other technologies. The intelligent use of data means converting a mass of data into a useful (ie, small and relevant) amount of valuable knowledge to assist decision making.

      • Dennis D Dryer

        My point is that with the advent of the computer, people thought if they had additional data points they would have better information. A “form, rebar, concrete” activity went from one schedule activity to three. It still takes the same amount of time for construction to do the activity, but the scheduler now has three data activities to track and schedule. Throw in the resource loading and instead of a “composite” crew cost loading (for concrete) you have to resource load laborers, carpenters, iron workers, etc. The Project Controls staffing to provide this additional detail isn’t cost effective to the overall project cost. KISS – Keep It Simple Silly!
        I know I’m an old fart, I retired in May 2012, but I still get worked up over the amounts of data Project Controls is having to deal with and not really getting more performance from it – it “hurts” Project Controls image (I think).
        No worries, I’ll go back to fishing and you can deal with the clients. Thanks for listening to me.

  13. Bad project controlling produces masses of data that is completely useless – unfortunately far too many people in the current generation only know how to play with software and have no idea about creating useful management information. I’m all for KISS – when it comes to the information provided to management. The role of information processing systems is to collect all of the available data, translate the data into accurate information, then work out what is relevant and communicating that information to the right people in a way that makes assimilating the required knowledge as easy as possible – project controls are no different. I will be posting a blog on this later.

  14. Hot off the press this morning: Malcolm Taylor, technical information manager for Crossrail, on using 5D to manage fit-out, and how BIM helped drive waste down to just 2% (typically 8%). 77% of the physical construction is complete and they are in middle of the fit-out stage, using 3D models to manage progress and keep track of complex installations.

    Typically, a Crossrail engineer and contractor engineer use an iPad running a lightweight 3D model to capture the progress of work in the 3D model and automatically calculate installation progress against the planned programme. This gives Crossrail an immediate grasp of quantities, in 5D, and an as-built record of what was built when.

  15. I like the idea of an iPad with 3-D imaging to track progress. Would be pretty hard to load the baseline and keep track of design changes, but it sure sounds intriguing to me.
    How would it tie to P6 (or whatever number it is now)?

    • I think the scheduling tool used is Synchro (don’t know its full name) – I was just stunned to see a large slice of my ‘original idea’ already being used before I thought of it….. 😦

      • Dennis D Dryer

        Thanks for the info. Gives new “meaning” to the 3-D goggles we gave our grandsons.
        Put a Project program in the view, the possibilities are quite large.
        I would love to see Amtrak’s High Speed Rail Program projects in 3-D view, al the way from Washington, DC to Boston, MA I was the Program Director for Planning and Integration on that job (104 subcontractors to keep track of)(Amtrak hired Bechtel to provide program oversight).

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