September 15, 2023

Innovative Idea Streamlines Project Planning

Researchers unveil user-friendly software to keep complex projects on budget and on schedule

Project Schedule Visualizer on screen

The user-friendly Project Schedule Visualizer tool, developed by researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is available for non-exclusive license in all fields at costs that are highly competitive with other commercially available tools with similar functionality.

(Composite image by Cortland Johnson | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

At Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), researchers collaborate on some of the world’s greatest challenges, but this story starts with internal challenges in project management and a spontaneous drive to solve them with a new, custom-designed software.

When Brett Simpson joined PNNL as a data scientist in 2017, he was supporting and managing projects using risk modeling and analysis. His role was to help project managers understand the wide impacts of schedule changes on complex projects. For example, the ripple effect of a permit delayed at the beginning of a construction project or how a supply chain issue early in production causes problems with laboratory equipment arriving within an estimated timeframe. Risk modeling accounts for the consequences of each of those delays far down the line, including the estimated completion date of a project.

“The process was very manual and laborious,” said Simpson. “The data structure and logic were multidimensional, and it was difficult to pinpoint where changes would happen and why. Project managers would have to familiarize themselves with thousands of tasks and sort through them with Gantt charts, which are hard to follow and do not typically explain the behavior observed.”

Problem solving a solution

Simpson shared his problem with Data Scientist Arun Veeramany.

"I had recently been reading about graph theory and uses of Lombardi diagrams in clearly understanding complex relationships, and I shared this thought with Arun,” Simpson recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s look at the problem this way,’ and Arun took what I gave him and ran with it.”

With his input and familiarity with the issues, and Veeramany’s data expertise, the Project Schedule Visualizer (PSV) was created. PSV is a critical path method scheduling tool that emphasizes the use of building logical relationships between activities, tasks, resources, and milestones to complete a project. It helps users readily identify and understand the risks and impacts of updates to a schedule and budget on large complex projects.

“The software democratizes understanding of a project with clear visuals,” said Veeramany. “What was once only available to a handful of people is now widely available across a spectrum of audiences.”

PSV generates clear tree and branch visualizations of evolving and complex schedules to provide valuable insights for analysis by users with or without technical expertise in project management.

“As humans we are attuned to seeing this type of framework. Gantt charts can often be too noisy or too obscure,” said Simpson. “With this, it’s like rolling up the curtains.”

Veeramany added, “The software pinpoints changes in a schedule and tells you how the schedule has transformed.”

A new solution for all

PNNL’s PSV is publicly available for free and low-cost licensing in 2023. It is already proven and has been in use on a multi-million-dollar Department of Energy project with schedules imported from widely used commercial project schedule risk management software.

“PSV is one of the few software developments at PNNL that can be broadly applied across nearly any industry or project size, like small contractors or mom and pop shops,” Commercialization Manager Alex Kendall said. “It’s a testament to one of our missions of enhancing U.S. economic competitiveness.”

The tool is a plug-and-play web application that is designed to be user-friendly for those with and without technical proficiency in project scheduling.

“The great thing about this development is that we originally created PSV as a tool for us to manage construction and science projects, but it was so valuable to the original job that we thought other folks with similar issues could benefit from the software too,” said Simpson.