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10 ways to digitise the construction sector: No. 1 BIM for bridges

Innovate UK is investing £6M to encourage collaborative research and development that supports the digitisation of the construction industry supply chain. In the first of a series of articles, NCE looks at one of 10 projects it is supporting

You might not think it from the way British industry is regularly maligned in the mainstream press but there are some UK exports that are the envy of the world.

The country might not be able to compete with the Chinese when it comes to manufacturing commodotised components as cheaply as possible, but it is a world leader in digitisation and the creation of processes. This is especially the case in the construction sector where our health and safety regulations, contract law and approach to BIM are held in high regard the world over.

BIM for Bridges Laing O'Rourke

Project will aim to simplify the design, manufacture and assembly of bridges

Innovate UK, part of the Technology Strategy Board, recognised this expertise and signalled its intention to further exploit the export opportunities in the digitisation of construction when it announced a £5.6M funding competition for the sector in 2014.  

One year on, 10 research and development (R&D) collaborations between established construction companies and their technology partners have been awarded a share of the £5.6M pot to develop their digitisation ideas.

“They are undertaking research and developing solutions as collaborative partnerships,” says Innovate UK lead technologist, built environment, Mark Wray. “We’ll provide them with a grant and they will provide matched funding as well. Typically about two thirds of the funding comes from us and one third comes from them.”

One of the 10 projects is a collaboration between Laing O’Rourke, Tony Gee & Partners and Cambridge University. It aims to create a smoother digital process for the design, manufacture and assembly of bridges.

Laing O’Rourke partnership and innovation leader, engineering excellence group, Adam Locke, says a smoother workflow could deliver tangible efficiencies and time and cost savings in bridge projects. He thinks this will be of particular value on a project like High Speed 2 which will require hundreds of crossings.  

“If you think about the processes involved in delivering a new bridge, most bridges tend to be pretty bespoke,” says Locke. “They are designed by different consultants in slightly different ways and rarely designed in a way that actually enables the benefits of offsite manufacture and more rapid onsite construction.”

He says the key focus of the project is about synchronising data, languages and protocols to improve interoperability between the different parts of the bridge building process.

“What we’re trying to do is integrate what works from a manufacturing point of view, from an assembly point of view and what works from a design point of view in a way that’s got consistent data formats. That way you don’t have to do horrible manual processes between each stage and the data flows through,” he adds.  

For this to happen, naming conventions and output files from each stage of the process need to be structured and arranged in systematic way.

“This is not just about taking the existing process and trying to patch it up,” Locke adds.  “We’re trying to completely rethink the process in a way that enables the [bridge] design to be manufactured and operated in a better way.”

BIM for Bridges Laing O'Rourke

A key focus of the project is about synchronising data, languages and protocols

Laing O’Rourke and its partners obviously have first mover advantage in conducting the research, but ultimately Locke thinks it will lead to a common standard for the way the data exchange occurs in offsite construction of bridges. Then the trick will be to find the parts of the bridge market to which it is most applicable.

“To begin with, we’ll find what the sweet spot is, so half of this is rationalising down to identify the appropriate segments of the bridge market to do this,” Locke says.

“We can’t focus on everything, so initially we might want to look at the base components [for bridges] that we can assemble in a variety of different ways. We’ll have a way of defining the components, a way to select them and combine them in the original design which will then enable us to analyse the performance of the bridge in terms of its structural performance and then move through to manufacture and assembly.”

The research delivered by the project could also inform the processes for offsite construction in other parts of the industry. Locke reveals that Laing O’Rourke is conducting similar research into how data exchanges can be streamlined in digitally enabling electrification in the rail sector. This is of a piece with another study to optimise design, manufacture and assembly of large structures for civil nuclear projects.

Locke thinks that Laing O’Rourke is in prime position to improve workflows in each of these sectors, because it is has engineering, contracting and manufacturing arms.

“Ultimately, if we can make this work, the benefits come through” says Locke. “Obviously if you’ve got just a designer trying to do this they wouldn’t reap any of the rewards in terms of manufacturing or process efficiencies, so there would be less incentive to make it work.”

NCE is pleased to announce the launch of the new Future Technology Forum in London on 1 October. The Forum will provide a unique opportunity for innovators, technology leaders and the industry to explore the future technological solutions which will be critical to the design, delivery and maintenance of future structures and infrastructure.

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