Specialist bridge consultant Tony Gee together with contractor Laing O’Rourke, Cambridge University and Innovate UK are midway through a two year, £1.2M research project to do something truly aspirational – digitise the entire bridge building process.
Digital engineering in discrete areas of the design process is not new, but all too often there is a lack of integration, and clashing IT platforms cause headaches for engineers. Where this huge research project differs is in its ambition is to integrate every aspect – from concept design to the maintenance regime.
The benefits of the project should be worth the effort: a much faster design process, greater efficiency, reliability, and reduced overall costs.
Every stage of the design process is being digitised going beyond the traditional view of digital being building information modelling (BIM), which forms only a small part of the overall package.
“By digital tools, we mean the various bits of computer software and databases that you use during the design, manufacture construction and maintenance process,” says Tony Gee & Partners executive director Neil Farmer. “Modelling is where the BIM comes in, so that’s just a small part of what we’re doing.”
To make this huge undertaking more digestible, the project has been split up into seven different packages which lead on from each other and examine each stage of the process. The stages range from: market research to establish what need there is for digitising the process; logging and categorising the many different types of bridges around the country logged; and eventual benchmarking and demonstration of the new digitisation tool.
Part of the initial stage of the research was to examine the design decisions that are made during the initial stages of the project and then map them out.
“At the moment there’s not really proper software to capture the design processes that you go through,” says Farmer. “So we’re having a brain dump from our engineers to put down on paper initially and then digitally what we do during the design process, and part of that is looking to improve the sequencing of the decisions which are made.
He says that from his point of view, the initial design process is really interesting.
“Going through the processes, the human element, I’m not aware of anything which captures that and tries to take what you do as a designer and quantify that.”
“What we’ve found is that probably 90% of the decisions are made at concept design stage, and if you get that right you can get to the right answer very quickly.”
It is this process which has given huge insight into the initial design stage for Tony Gee. Digitising this phase of a project has allowed the consultant to discover seemingly innocent innocuous decisions, which have knock-on effects on the critical path.
- From the initial discussions with the engineers, flow diagrams were produced and the processes have been mapped out using design structure matrices (DSMs). Through algorithms, these then work out interactions between the elements and subsequently the most efficient way of ordering the process.
“Normally we sit down and say ’this is what we do and these are the decisions we make’,” says Farmer. “What the matrices do is to put all of the important things up near the front, so you make those decisions earlier and it links the interdependencies of those decisions.”
One of the aspects which the team is looking at is a parametric tool which can allow the designer to push and pull the design around to suit different requirements. This tool aims to not only change the geometry of the structure, but re-analyse it each time – updating the model with the redesigned structural elements.
The team’s aim is then to integrate this model into costing software, using historical data and current information to give a preliminary costing at an earlier stage. To streamline the design process further still, each part of a bridge could be standardised, manufactured off site and then simplyassembled on site. With the manufacturing process standardised, programming software could then also be linked into the model.
“At the moment what tends to happen, [for example] take Laing O’Rourke, the design information is generally not compatible with the software which we use in design,” he says. “Therefore they’ve got to double handle the data. So the idea is that we’re going to co-ordinate that with the manufacturing process.
By automating some of the processes, you can get to the bespoke solutions a lot, lot quicker.
“We’re not going to crack that nut with this project because they’re not going to change their software overnight, but the idea is to integrate all of that information.”
Currently the team are using a digital software package called Solidworks, but Farmer says that the choice of program is unimportant, rather it was a case of examining the process behind the development of the design that was the aim. Similarly, the project is primarily centred on concrete structures. But Farmer says that once the process is proved there is no reason why it could not be applied to structures made from other materials.
“At the moment, we’re focusing more on concrete, but there’s no reason why in the future why this can’t be extrapolated for use with timber, steel or fibre reinforced polymer (FRP), but we’re trying to get the process right and then we can adapt it to accommodate other materials.”
This “kit of parts” still has work to be done on it says Farmer, and the team are currently working with Network Rail and Highways England to work on assembling precast elements safely.
One criticism levelled at the team is that this sort of standardisation will lead to a run of identical bridges. However, he was keen to emphasise that this will not be the case and that it will still involve human input into the visual component of the design.
“I think the biggest obstacle to overcome is the people who are fearful of the word ‘standardisation’, and think that this means that everything will look the same,” he says.
“But it doesn’t mean that. What it does mean is that more will be built using similar processes and not keeping on going through the same processes that we do manually. By automating some of the processes, you can get to the bespoke solutions a lot, lot quicker.
Hopefully this will be the journey to the utopic digital bridge.
“We’ve been in consultation with Knight Architects to get architectural buy-in so we are considering aesthetics as well.”
Tony Gee is testing the concepts as it goes using existing bridges as case studies. The section of the A453 flinking the M1 to Nottingham City centre has four bridges which have been used to prove the new tools which the team have developed. Each part of one of the precast concrete bridges has been broken down into its constituent elements and then put through the digital design process. The team then went a stage further and linked all of the quality data to the digital model.
In the end, the team hopes to produce an integrated system of software which demonstrates that the system works.
There will be a Solidworks model that is at the heart of all the other digital tools which feed into it,” says Farmer. “It’ll be a vault which contains all the different elements and the data and constantly exchanges data with the model.
“Quite what it all looks like in a year’s time will be interesting, and hopefully this will be the journey to the utopic digital bridge.”