It may take a village to raise a child, but to execute today's construction projects, which grow ever larger in scale, complexity and global reach, it may take an international array of participants to design, build, supply and manage.

Cloud computing, ever-more-virtual reality and powerful collaboration tools are helping far-flung work teams compress their schedules. But the new rules of global workflow are not without problems.

Global participation in design is not a new phenomenon, but how these teams get their work done is changing, firms say. The global work approach, now used on 5% of Parsons Brinckerhoff projects, will grow to 30% in three to five years, says David A. McAllister, corporate development director.

Satvinder Flore, business development director for AMEC's Americas natural resources unit in Vancouver, B.C., adds, "We're commonizing our tools and support structures to set a consistent platform for work share. It's embedded in the way we work. We have to harness our global capability to enable local delivery."

Andy Ewens, the U.K.-based firm's group engineering director, says "it's not uncommon" for up to 40% of design on major projects to be done at its "high value" office in Santiago, Chile. The firm relies on a global network of work-share offices with specialized project and sector skills.

Greg Kelly, PB's chief operating officer, cites improving skill sets and labor rates in emerging markets and investments in cloud technologies for project data management as key factors that "enable a free flow of information worldwide." By deploying cloud-based servers, teams around the globe can view project updates instantly while collaborating on the same document and doing simultaneous tasks, he adds.

Just in Time

Global work-share techniques are reaching deeper into project functions, especially during the construction and supply-chain management phases.

"The global supply chain is reality," says John MacDonald, Bechtel senior vice president and global manager of EPC functions. "You have to be able to access quality suppliers around the world to be competitive." Even more important, he says, is the ability for all parties to exchange information in common data languages. When that happens, "it is a huge upgrade in functionality," which all major vendors can now provide, says MacDonald.

On a $520-million powerplant project in Perm, Russia, completed in 2011 and on which Bechtel was lead engineer, procurement, engineering and supplier teams "took advantage of the time-zone differences between participant locations in the U.S., Turkey, India, Belgium, Germany and Russia to maintain project execution around the clock," says Goktan Gokdemirtas, a project manager with Turkish construction manager Enka.

The firm and its European suppliers "would have overlap with Bechtel offices to support the progress," he says. "Therefore, in just 24 hours, all the processes were concluded."

On the recent $515-million roof replacement and upgrade of BC Place stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia, the project team included 150 engineers, contractors and suppliers from 20 countries, says construction manager PCL Construction. Andy Tallentire, project director for PCL, says key roof components—such as the masts, cables, fabric assemblies (fixed and retractable), cast steel connections and custom mechanisms—were sourced globally from three continents.

"Materials were fabricated and shipped to many locations around the world for additional processing and fabrication before they arrived on-site," he says. "The schedule didn't allow for materials showing up late or out of specification."

Ensuring the array of suppliers could meet Canadian standards, PCL assigned 52 staffers to the project, with two "dedicated to traveling the world" to track quality-assurance control and fabrication quality concerns, allowing subcontractors to sequence their work accordingly, says Tallentire.

Bechtel's MacDonald notes accelerated project team information links to spread tasks and coordinate with Asian fabricators working on several giant LNG sites in Australia, where the firm faces very tight craft and professional labor resources.

A planned multibillion-dollar water-supply expansion project at a copper mine in Chile will include collaboration across four company businesses and work in Taipei, Delhi, Santiago and the U.S., says McDonald. "Information flow is what really governs the critical path," he says. "We've only scratched the surface of how powerful this is."

More Hands On

Jim Scotti, Fluor Corp. senior vice president and chief procurement officer, says the firm now has 2,400 staff assigned to global procurement management. "It's pretty game-changing," he says. Scotti says the firm's procurement staff in China alone has grown to 300 people today from three to five people in 2005.

Fluor also is beginning to sell "standalone" procurement management services, without engineering and construction, to clients and suppliers. He declines to identify clients but says they include a major oil company and a small solar technology firm.

Kathy Canaan, Fluor logistics director, notes "the increase in products from emerging markets where we never would have thought." She says the firm needs "a process for looking at the whole supply chain and to know where the goods are coming from."

Philip Ovanessians, general manager of global procurement for Samsung Construction & Trading Corp., adds, "Construction logistics are different from retail logistics because [the latter] is always the same." Both point to technology advances, such as software simulation tools for traffic flow, but note difficulties in information input and client acceptance.

Coordinating work to procure manufactured components and then refine facility designs into thousands of shop drawings that trigger fabrication, shipment and eventual delivery for construction is "not rocket science—it's a whole lot harder than that," notes Reg Hunter, a former aerospace-sector engineer who now is senior program director at Fiatech.

The industry consortium now seeks ways to improve the process. It has several technology initiatives under way now to apply advanced data analytics to give EPCs better tools to predict trouble in the project workflow and address it early.