Accelerating schedules

New software tool could provide significant savings in time and money on oilsands projects

Researchers at the University of Calgary (U of C) have been working on a software tool that could cut significant costs from oilsands projects by compressing construction schedules.

The Schulich School of Engineering researchers say the power of computing technology could not only save time and money and making the industry more economically sustainable.

The tool is called ScheduleAccelerator.

“What differentiates our tool from current scheduling software is that we have added inputs that guide a project manager towards the most effective ways of accelerating their projects in order to get maximum monetary benefit,” U of C researcher Reza Dehghan told Oilsands Review, a sister publication of Alberta Construction Magazine.

Given the billions of dollars involved in building oilsands projects, accelerating construction schedules even by one day can bring significant monetary benefits to owners. This tool, however, can be used on any large project outside of the oilsands.

OVERLAPPING AND CRASHING

Dehghan, who holds a doctorate in project management from the U of C, started research into schedule compression five years ago with a focus on “activity overlapping”—doing multiple tasks concurrently. He was joined by PhD candidate Kamran Hazini, who is doing complementary research focused on “activity crashing”—reducing the task durations by adding more resources. This research program was supervised by Janaka Y. Ruwanpura, U of C’s vice-provost (international).

The researchers began by studying the theory behind project acceleration, specifically the time/cost trade-off. Hazini studies how construction duration can be shortened, for example, by adding overtime work and more workers in the field. Both overlapping and crashing actions increase cost, but reducing the overall construction duration also reduces certain other construction costs and provides earlier revenue flow from the completed facilities.

“If you do this trade-off so that the benefits exceed the costs, construction schedule contraction can be a benefit to the project and the oil company,” Dehghan says.

After modelling the time/cost trade-off, the researchers developed an algorithm to solve this trade-off equation. The algorithm was then converted into a computer tool that is incorporated into a Microsoft Office environment.

Bantrel, the Calgary-based engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company that does a lot of work in the oilsands, was instrumental in the development of ScheduleAccelerator by providing the Schulich School researchers exposure to a recent oilsands project during the formulation of the time/cost trade-off algorithm. This cooperation also provided the researchers a first level of testing.

“There are two types of field tests that we could do,” Dehghan says. “We performed one, which involved taking a real project schedule and accelerating that schedule.”

Bantrel says that “a typical major project level three schedule can contain thousands of activities. It is envisioned that this tool will enable project management to assess various critical path sub-networks for opportunities to reduce or compress the overall schedule.”

Traditionally, EPC project schedules are developed by project managers applying their understanding of the processes, durations and resource allocation derived from years of professional experience in managing previous projects. But this experience can vary from one project manager to another.

FINAL SAY

“So if you want to compress the schedule, it is [also] up to the project manager, scheduler or planner to identify which activities to be crashed and what activities need to be overlapped. And these exercises are being done very subjectively in the industry,” Hazini says.

The advantage of the ScheduleAccelerator is that it provides additional inputs and performs calculations based on all the inputs, and it offers suggestions, he says.

“For example, activities A, B and D may be the best candidates for crashing, while activities C, F and G are better to be overlapped,” Hazini explains. It also provides a cost estimate for each option it produces, and by performing a cost-benefit analysis, is designed to suggest the most viable solutions.

Says Dehghan: “The beauty of this tool is that it doesn’t come up with one or two suggestions. It can provide the project manager tens or hundreds of solutions to accelerate the project. Then he can decide which ones he’s most comfortable with.”

The tool represents a new approach that tests and re-examines traditional project schedule assumptions, according to Bantrel. It has the potential to advance schedule development and project execution with substantial benefits for oilsands owners.

The work Dehghan and Hazini still need to do is to find a current, rather than a historic, oilsands project on which to run this tool. For that to happen, it will need to be made more user-friendly.

“The tool is currently developed in [the] Microsoft Project platform that interacts with Microsoft Excel and should be customized for each project,” Hazini says. “We need to build the tool into either Primavera, which is the program most planners are using in the industry, or fully integrate it into the Microsoft Project software to make it easier for practitioners to use.”

The work of improving the tool so it can move from the world of academic research to the engineering office is expected to take another year, at which time the researchers can start thinking about marketing it as a software product.

So for now, schedule compression is still very much ongoing research to which Dehghan and Hazini hope to attract more researchers who could work on other features they haven’t been able to as well as to improve speed and functionality.


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