Engineering on an international scale

Working on projects clear across the globe may introduce more obstacles to overcome than mere distance and language barriers—each locale comes with its own codes, climate conditions, and unique characteristics.



Mark Haboian, Senior Program Manager and Chemical Process Engineer, Optimation Technology Inc., Rochester, N.Y.

Brian E. Hagglund, PE, Assistant Manager—Middle East, Aon Fire Protection Engineering Corp., Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Bill Kosik, PE, CEM, LEED AP, BEMP, Distinguished Technologist, Data Center Facilities Consulting, Hewlett-Packard Co., Chicago

Erin McConahey, PE, LEED AP, FASHRAE, Principal, Arup, Los Angeles

Figure 1: Before shipping to a client’s facility in Singapore, engineers with Optimation Technology Inc. assembled this high-pressure test equipment in the company’s Rochester, N.Y., headquarters for testing. Courtesy: Optimation Technology Inc.CSE: Please describe a recent international project you’ve coordinated.

Mark Haboian: Our firm is currently working on a long-running process-engineering project located in Singapore. The project is a consulting, design, build, test, ship, and installation project. It involves designing and building multiple process-equipment test systems, the associated heavy-duty automated blast door for each test room, and the control system that integrates all of this equipment with the site utilities, building monitor/alarm systems, and site data-collection/information technology (IT) infrastructure.

Probably the most important issue of the program that we encountered is communication between international team members. What I would recommend to any engineering firm that designs, fabricates, and integrates equipment in other countries, is to be rigorous with upfront communication and design consultation with the multiple engineering firms that are involved with big projects. It is critical to get the process design information to the site structural/architectural firm that is building the complex on day 1, and not later in the project phase when it’s too late to make changes. Even conceptual design information is helpful, so that everybody is referencing it during early structural/architectural design.

On day 1, designing in the appropriate overhead structural support, side wall support, wall and door openings, trenches and sumps, drains and vents, site utilities, chemical supplies and storage, and IT infrastructure is a critical site setup activity. If you miss this at the beginning of your project and have to install it later, especially after the structural/architectural work has begun (or worse, is complete), it becomes very expensive and time-consuming to fix. So be rigorous and get all the engineering firms together on those late-night (or early morning) weekly conference calls, trade your critical design information with each other, and get agreement from your client manager. Although you’ll lose sleep at the beginning of your project, you won’t at the end.

Brian Hagglund: I have been overseeing Aon Fire Protection Engineering’s (FPE) work on multiple international airport projects in the Middle East over the past 5 yr, in additional to mixed-use high-rise developments. Aon FPE has been providing fire and life safety shop drawing reviews, inspections, and commissioning for all fire/life safety systems in a building. Aon FPE has provided the fire/life safety handover of numerous buildings to the local civil defense authorities upon completion.

Bill Kosik: To set the stage, I consult on data center projects by providing actionable data coming from system modeling and energy-use analysis. My work is done mainly in the early stages of the project and also during any cost-reduction exercises to make sure proposed savings ideas don’t increase energy-related operational costs. So it is important for me to gain a good understanding of the client’s goals for energy-efficient practices, as well as any local jurisdictional requirements for minimum energy performance.

Due to the sensitive nature of our project work, I cannot divulge project-specific details, but as a reference point, in the past 4 yr I have worked on more than 150 projects. If I look at it from a regional perspective, the Americas made up 45% of the assignments, Europe Middle East Africa (EMEA) 30%, Asia Pacific (APJ) 20%, and Latin America Caribbean 5%. So you can get an idea that outside the U.S., most projects took place in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific. If I look from a country perspective, the top 10 countries in which I have done project work are: Germany, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, China, India, Russian Federation, Singapore, Brazil, and Czech Republic. Certainly this is not representative in total of where the projects are, but it gives an indication of data center construction in different countries.

Erin McConahey: One recent project for a confidential client in East Asia was a combination of a research laboratory and office space, approximately 900,000 sq ft.

CSE: How has your engineering firm met the needs of international clients? Have you opened an office in another country? Sent engineers for short- or long-term projects overseas?

Hagglund: Aon FPE opened an office in Dubai in 2006 to serve the greater Middle East region. Staffing for the Dubai office has been achieved through a combination of U.S. engineers relocating on short- and long-term assignments, as well as local and regional hiring. We are currently operating with a staff of 28, including several multilingual consultants who are critical to serving the local and international clients present in the region. Aon FPE also serves Europe, Africa, and Southwest Asia from our Dubai office.

McConahey: Our firm has offices in more than 40 countries to serve our international clients. Depending on the project, we may deploy local people to service the projects or send people from the Americas region, depending on familiarity with the projects, developmental opportunities, and the willingness of the person to work overseas.

Haboian: We support our international clients in many ways. Three common scenarios are:

  1. Concept design and budgetary project pricing, where we consult with clients in their early phases of project justification. Providing a project design, scope of work, and overall pricing greatly helps client managers understand what they will be getting for their money before they actually get started down that road.
  2. Detailed design-build projects, where we have been contracted to supply a complete fabricated/commissioned assembly that will be installed at the client’s site. Not only do we supply the contracted assembly, but we also supply work-release instructions to inform site contractors how to install the equipment safely, efficiently, and with minimum disruptions. We even specifically call out “hold points” for a quality control (QC) person to approve the current installation before moving to the next phase.
  3. On-site installation consulting, where we send a company representative to the site as a consultant to work with the client’s installation contractors. The time frame could be anywhere from 1 wk to several years. For long stays, there are many considerations that factor into the decision besides project funding allotment, such as employee involvement in the stay (scope of work, duration, compensation, per diem expenses, etc.), customs tax on labor outside the U.S., foreign tax withholding issues and who will pay, and the ability to set up a satellite office to allow for the extended stay (probably the best option for long projects). For complicated installation work, our site representative is invaluable and can direct the critical installation activities, enforce the hold points (mentioned above), verify the installation drawings and specifications, and participate in the client’s final site acceptance test and product accreditation.

Kosik: Our firm was acquired by HP in 2008, so our expansion into international work really took off then. Although we were doing work worldwide prior to the acquisition, it was not on such a large scale as it is today. Our model is to have an office in a region or country that’s staffed by teams from the area who understand the particulars of the local practices and customer needs. Countries have different codes, bidding processes, permitting and review techniques, and other legal procedures. We have found that establishing a local presence is the best way to ensure growth and establish client trust.

CSE: What business-development techniques are you using to gain international clients and/or projects?

Kosik: We have regional leaders on the ground who are responsible for client development. These leaders are backed by worldwide technical teams that are available for further strategy and proposal-response development for potential projects.

McConahey: I would say that we support our local architects, and if they pursue work overseas we will mobilize the global network to help them. Generally, each region of the firm supports its own local architects or contractors, primarily in terms of repeat business as opposed to specific international marketing. However, we have some large-scale global businesses, such as aviation, in which it does make sense for us to target the whole global industry as opposed to working from the region outward.

Hagglund: We first entered the Middle East market through partnerships with existing U.S.- and European-based architectural clients working in the region. Aon established its footprint in the region by gaining certification from Dubai Civil Defense as an international house of expertise, approved to provide fire/life safety certifications and consulting services. This credential allowed Aon to expand its international client base to the local level within the UAE, and then throughout the Middle East.

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