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Debate | Embracing and applying modern technology

Earlier this year, New Civil Engineer asked a range of influential thinkers to chart where they thought emerging technologies were on their journey and how could the industry deliver differently by making better use of them.

Six months later at a round table debate, hosted in association with Bentley Systems, the same emerging technologies were discussed alongside the progression of technology consumption in the profession.

“We are at a tipping point,” kicked off Bentley Systems industry marketing director Steve Cockerell. “These are times of uncertainty, but there is a lot of creative energy in the industry and I think it is incumbent upon us to grasp that opportunity.

“We are creating more data than ever. Technology and its uses are accelerating at a rate we haven’t seen before and it’s not going to slow down.

”The technology areas were discussed and attendees were asked if they thought their use would become the norm, how they might be practically applied in the future and to give real-life examples.


Costain has looked at technology which can locate mobile workers using low energy beacons. This can pinpoint where the workers were, and enabled observers to see whether they had encroached in designated no-go zones. “However the technology wasn’t that accurate” explained Costain mobile technology manager Harrison O’Hara. “It could pinpoint someone as near a no-go zone, but not actually in one.”

A more successful project was using wearable technology for road workers. They had to record where they were and whether they had completed their work, “but there has been no appetite for it” added O’Hara“

Technology and its uses are accelerating at a rate we haven’t seen before and it’s not going to slow down

University College London (UCL) chair in built environment foresight Tim Broyd thought the problem could be that construction was historically “not an inventor of technology, but an adopter”. He suggested that the industry should look at what 15-year-olds are doing and at people coming into the industry. “They will get frustrated as they can do so many things when they’re not at work, but are much more limited at work.”

3D Printing

Arup infrastructure director Tim Chapman thinks that 3D printing may have been overhyped and the industry was trying to use it for the sake of using it. “High Speed 2 Ltd plans to print embankments, but earthworks are one of the cheapest forms of construction, so why use 3D printing? What are the benefits?”

Arup engineer Victoria Richardson asked whether the industry should be using 3D printing to replicate traditional building methods, or whether it should come up with a completely different way to build structures. “The thing missing with 3D printing in concrete is the detail”

“I’ve visited barracks in Illinois where they have been using 3D printing for buildings AKTII senior engineer Daniel Bergsagel explained. “But the buildings are boring. They are safe, not architecturally interesting but are solid. So there is a market for 3D printing in construction.”

Virtual and augmented reality

“The great thing about augmented reality is that anyone can pick up an iPad. It is completely intuitive” explained Costain’s O’Hara. Costain has been using this technology for a while including at London Bridge railway station redevelopment where it was used to show Network Rail and the emergency services where hoardings were to be placed along shop fronts.

High Speed 2 Ltd plans to print embankments, but earthworks are one of the cheapest forms of construction, so why use 3D printing

“It really comes into its own when you interact with what is already there, rather than a model. At the moment it is only static data, but once it has a live data feed, it will become really powerful” he added.UCL’s Broyd thinks the industry is on the cusp of developing a totally parallel digital platform for construction and infrastructure that will mimic the physical platform. “We take the best parts of building information modelling and put it together with a number of other digital procurement platforms to provide a parallel platform. It will be with us in the next 10 years” he predicted.

Gamification of construction design

Gamification makes the user think about all of the options available, said Skanska innovation manager Vaibhav Tygai. “It’s about behaviour change for increased efficiency or safety, about predicting behaviours and behaviour change.

”Transport for London (TfL) head of engineering governance and services John Downes agreed.“It’s the idea of picking up the technology and taking your day job, taking someone else’s solution and pushing them together. There is a shed load of solutions.

”It’s a “nice to have” but expensive technology, argued Royal HaskoningDHV principal consultant Amy Savage, who has used gamification for flood risk management schemes. “The design should come from the stakeholders, but no one is prepared to pay for it.”

WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff director of development Rachel Skinner agreed but said she thought the industry lacked the evidence for gamification.

“There is a lot of opportunity for public facing work like consultation and engagement to use gamification. Once we work out how to use it easily and quickly and cheaply.”

Technology is not a layer across the top of engineering. It is a part of engineering. The sooner we realise it is, the sooner we can convince others.

Internet of things

The development of the internet, where everyday objects can send and receive data was discussed. But what do we do with that data? asked WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Skinner.

“We’ve already got a mass of data and we’re about to hit by a massive wave of raw data. It’s about how we shape the data, and what do we need to know and what do we do with it.”

TfL’s Downes thought it was all about “how somebody manages to connect things that are not currently connected in any shape o rform” and to make it useful.

People fear that a robot will replace them, that they will lose their job, when actually a robot can do a job that is unsafe, different, or additional to the work they can do

Context is what is most important added Bentley’s Cockerell “We are collecting more data than ever before, but without context and the transfer into information, where you can make informed decisions? Data is just abunch of noughts and ones. It doesn’t mean anything.

”The industry has to attract more data scientists, said Arup’s Richardson. “People studying engineering now are still not learning what they need to do, to be able to link huge amounts of data and how that transfers into a job.

”The profession must evolve added WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Skinner “Technology is not a layer across the top of engineering. It is a part of engineering. The sooner we realise it is, the sooner we can convince others. It is not the icing, it’s becoming the cake.”

Fear of robotics

Arup’s Richardson said the fear that robotics will take over human jobs must be overcome. “People fear that a robot will replace them, that they will lose their job, when actually a robot can do a job that is unsafe, different, or additional to the work they can do. Why would we not want arobot to do that?”

UCL’s Broyd agreed and said it was as much a societal issue as technical issue.“The 2012 Olympics and paralympics was a celebration of what people can do, rather than can’t do.

“Society might decide that construction sites become no-go areas as they are too unsafe for people and there will be a big rise in robotics and automation. Or it might decide that people can do a lot more even if they are less able, and this could lead to a big change in the social aspects of construction sites.”

Around the table 

Daniel Bergsagel, Senior engineer, AKT II
Tim Broyd, Chair in built environment foresight, UCL
Tim Chapman, Director infrastructure, Arup
Steve Cockerell, Industry marketing director, road and rail, Bentley Systems
John Downes, Head of engineering governance and services, TfL
Mark Hansford, Editor, New Civil Engineer
Harrison O’Hara, Mobile technology manager, Costain
Victoria Richardson, Engineer, Arup
Amy Savage, Principal consultant, Royal HaskoningDHV
Rachel Skinner, Director of development, WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff
Peter Slater, Aerial solutions manager, Costain
Vaibhav Tyagi, Innovation manager, Skanska
Andrew Weir, Director, Expedition Engineering
Mark Williams, Group development director, Van Elle
Andrew Zhao, Emerging technology strategist, Mott MacDonald

Bentley’s The Year in Infrastructure conference 2016 runs from 1 to 3 November at the Hilton London Metropole

In association with

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