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Delivering Differently | Emerging technologies

Flying factory

New Civil Engineer investigates the emerging technologies that are set to impact on civil engineering in a special report.

We are in the midst of a global digital revolution which is transforming the way in which people and businesses connect. It is also transforming the potential for businesses to innovate and improve their productivity.

Nowhere is this potential greater than the construction industry. Yet the construction industry is widely perceived to be way behind the curve; resistant and unresponsive, to change.

That is certainly the view of the British government, so former chief construction advisor Peter Hansford told New Civil Engineer as he prepared for life outside of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) late last year.

hype curve v5

hype curve v5

Hansford was concerned that his legacy – the Construction 2025 industrial strategy – will not survive without the leadership provided by his role.

The strategy, launched in 2013, challenges the industry and the government to work together to meet ambitious targets by 2025. These include reducing costs by 33%, overall project delivery time by 50%, emissions by 50% and construction exports by 50%.

Many other industries have gone through their own industrial revolution, we need to go through ours

 It is crucial that the targets are met as London Underground programme director for Crossrail and major stations Miles Ashley explains: “We have to get more out of every pound we spend. We have to get more capacity on the ground. Increasingly we have to access new technologies; new logistics and new materials; to enable that efficiency.

“Much of this already exists. Other industries are using it or developing it. Many other industries have gone through their own industrial revolution,” he says. “We need to go through ours.” 

Ashley is one of those taking responsibility for making that happen. He sits on Infrastructure UK’s Infrastructure Client Group and is leading efforts to develop new business models that enable innovation.

Later this year Ashley’s group will publish this data through the ICE. He says it will demonstrate for the first time the underlying economic case for a different way of working – for delivering differently.

2016 - the year of delivering differently?

So is 2016 the year the industry embraces technology and genuinely begins to deliver differently?

Clearly there is a vast array of technologies at vastly different stages of development that can and will have vastly different impacts on the industry. Which are the ones that are set to have most immediate impact?

To try and find out, New Civil Engineer asked a range of influential thinkers to chart where they think these emerging technologies are on their journey from initial concept, through early development, over-hype, rapid descent into disillusionment and then gradual emergence into usefulness and mass-market appeal.

We’ve used the Hype Cycle, a branded graphical presentation developed and used by US research and advisory firm Gartner for representing the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies through five phases from concept to practical application. Gartner sees emerging technologies ranging in maturity from those that are little more than concepts such as smart dust to those that are ready for mass adoption such as 3D printing.


Many of the technologies placed by our experts are instantly identifiable as being integral to the industrialisation concept – technologies such as building information modelling, 3D printing and robotics. And this is no accident, as throughout the supply chain there are examples of firms applying industrialisation thinking, whether it is Laing O’Rourke and its Design for Manufacture and Assembly approach, Costain’s Factory Thinking or Skanska’s Flying Factories.

Skanska director of innovation and business improvement Rob Francis explains: “We have a strong approach to industrialising our processes. That includes developing offsite –flying factories we call that – plus a serious focus on onsite processes, more proactive work with logistics suppliers and focusing on design for maintenance through standardisation of products.

“And the basic backbone of the strategy overall is aiming at the Construction 2025 requirements. We have taken a very critical look at our business in connection with Construction 2025 and all our innovation projects are integrated with that and built in to our five to 10 year business plan.”

The flying factory concept is an intriguing one: a system of near-site manufacture, which allows structures to be built in controlled conditions, removing the potential effects of bad weather and other on-site hazards – speeding up the assembly of the building on site. “Flying factories is a big part of our industrialisation strategy,” explains head of innovation Sam Stacey. “What we wanted to do was come up with a flexible factory concept where we could set up, produce elements near-site for the duration we needed, ensure transport costs are minimal and be state of the art about the processes within it.” 

The concept was used to assemble wall panels for Glenfrome School in Bristol, enabling a building extension to be completed in just six weeks during the summer holiday. It was then successfully applied to Battersea Power Station development, where 550 utility cupboards have been created for residential use. Significant cost and time savings have also been recorded for both projects.

Manufacturing focus

Laing O’Rourke remains focused on its Explore manufacturing centre in Streetly. It’s an approach that is already throwing up some remarkable project performances.

MPT, the Laing O’Rourke-led consortium delivering the Greater Manchester Metrolink’s expansion scooped the Major Civils category at last year’s British Construction Industry Awards for the successful delivery of the Manchester Airport Line. The team of Laing O’Rourke, VolkerRail and Thales delivered the 14.5km route more than 12 months ahead of schedule with Laing O’Rourke’s Explore manufacturing facility were used to build 15 tram stops that were subsequently assembled on-site, cutting the typical on-site construction period from 12 weeks to two. 

Industrialisation is definitely coming.

We really are moving into quite a different world. We are not talking about digital pieces of paper

 So the good news: most of our experts agree that building information modelling (BIM) – insofar as it is used for design and construction is now well along the cycle and firmly on the plateau of productivity. But our experts also agree that BIM for asset management in particular is lagging some way behind. And that is vital because wherever the industrialisation takes place, data and digital technology are crucial. 

“We really are moving into quite a different world. We are not talking about digital pieces of paper. At the heart of all these initiatives is the need to improve the management and validation of data,” says Skanska head of digital Malcolm Stagg. “At the heart of all these initiatives is the need to improve the management and validation of data.” After all, a robot is only as good as the data it is fed.

It is crucial.

 “There is a huge need for this to be better understood,” insists Stagg.

The most advanced technological hardwares – according to most of our experts – are drones as a surveying tool and use of carbon fibre as a material.  

A new special interest group is actively advancing use of fibre reinforced polymers and drones for surveying are indeed finding ever more uses.


Dipping into the trough: Wearables

hype curve icons wearables v1

hype curve icons wearables v1

Wearables is just coming off the peak for Gartner, and construction is beginning to see real value. Wearable technology to control and monitor health and safety on site is very much seen as on the rise by CIC BIM2050 – and that was exactly the concept proposed by the team of rising stars from Atkins which won New Civil Engineer’s Dragons’ Den-style competition to find solutions to the Construction 2025 challenge last summer. “All of this technology exists, why can’t that technology be applied to a construction site?’” explains Atkins graduate James Etherington.

Leaving the trough of disillusionment: 3D printing

hype curve icons printer v1

hype curve icons printer v1

Furthest along Gartner’s own hype cycle is 3D printing, identified as one of the top 10 strategic technology trends for 2016, and many our experts say it is rapidly developing in construction. Skanska is one of the biggest advocates, having already used 3D printed components in the ETFE roof of the £50M, 16-storey Bevis Marks building in the City of London. But its real passion is developing 3D concrete printing . It has signed a collaboration agreement with Loughborough University to allow it to use – under licence – any 3D concrete printing technology developed.

Also leaving the trough: Virtual & augmented reality

hype curve icons  augmentedv1

hype curve icons augmentedv1

Gartner has both in the trough, but Skanska for one has them both on the upward slope.

It is working with the University of Reading to use virtual reality to rehearse and optimise construction processes. Near-site manufacture using its flying factories will be combined with virtual-reality-enabled supply chain management and process improvement. 

On the rise: Nanotech

hype curve nanotech

hype curve nanotech

Costain is increasing its support for the development of self-healing concrete by enabling the start of field trials on one of its live highway projects in the South Wales Valleys – thought to be the first to take place in the UK.

The Materials for Life project is piloting three separate concrete-healing technologies in real-world settings, with a view to incorporating them into a single system that could be used to automatically repair concrete in the built environment.

The research team, led by Cardiff University, is trialling three separate technologies at the site.

On the rise: Gamification of construction design & smart materials

hype curve gamification

hype curve gamification

More Skanska; more Innovate UK research funding (£400,000); this time to develop an innovative approach to zero prototyping in the construction sector via the gamification of the design process. The plan is to develop a generic approach to enable the design process for each construction project to be turned into an immersive game to enable “players” to work out the best solutions.

On the rise: Robotics

hype curve icons robotics v1

hype curve icons robotics v1

More Innovate UK funding for Skanska (£700,000 this time) is being used to develop the use of robots for on-site and off-site construction.

Skanska is leading a research consortium, which features ABB Robotics, to create robotic construction units that can be deployed on site, or in Skanska’s flying factories, to carry out cutting, drilling and fixing.

Explains Stacey: “Robotics in construction is an unknown field and provides great opportunities. A robot to drill and fix to the underside of slabs, for example, would eliminate a lot of work at height in dusty, noisy environments.”

At the peak: Internet of things 

hype curve internet of things

hype curve internet of things

Gartner estimates that 1.6bn connected things will be used by smart cities in 2016, an increase of 39% from 2015.

“Thanks to data collected from sensors, smart cities can interact and engage with residents and businesses, creating a collaborative environment,” explains Gartner research vice president Bettina Tratz-Ryan. “In Singapore, for example, sensors in bus stops can identify people with different needs — buses are announced early to allow enough time for elderly people to be ready to board. 

Innovative trigger: Intelligent autonomous construction machines and smart dust 

hype curve gamification

hype curve gamification

Mira is leading on a £1.7M project to research future construction techniques involving a combination of automation, information technology and machine guidance.

And Smartdust? Very early stages here – but it is a system of many tiny microelectromechanical systems such as sensors or robots that can detect light, temperature, vibration, magnetism, or chemicals. 

A recent review discussed various techniques to take smart dust in sensor networks beyond millimetre dimensions to the micrometre level.

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