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Digital: a matter of life and death

Bhupinder1 cropped

“There has never been a more exciting time,” insists Bentley chief product officer Bhupinder Singh.

He is speaking to New Civil Engineer as engineering software giant Bentley’s week-long Year in Infrastructure jamboree draws to close. Based on the innovations and ideas being showcased, he is not wrong. Whether it is through drones, mixed reality devices, or the Internet of Things, there really is a sense of excitement among the civil engineers present that there is a future that is digital.

It’s enough to prompt Singh to make literary references: “I’m reminded of Arthur C Clarke and his statement that advances in technology are indistinguishable from magic,” he says.

I’m reminded of Arthur C Clarke and his statement that advances in technology are indistinguishable from magic

Bhupinder Singh, Bentley

Some of it is quite mind-blowing. Probably the big announcement at the Year In Infrastructure event was a significant breakthrough in reality modelling which is expected to be available from this month. For reality modelling, point-clouds from laser scanning can now be combined with photos, as “hybrid inputs,” for reconstruction into a superior engineering-ready “reality mesh”.

Such technologies have the potential to transform the way infrastructure is designed, built and maintained.

But, as New Civil Engineer’s recent research with Bentley showed, while civil engineers as individuals are getting excited about digital technology, their employers are often seen as blockers, holding back adoption of technology by denying their staff the authority to experiment.

Singh thinks this is a temporary position and that business leaders will recognise what their junior colleagues are trying to do.

“I listen to new music because of my kids,” he observes. “If it wasn’t for them I’d still be listening to Jethro Tull.

Digital Jethro Tull

“The kids of our industry aren’t going to be accepting of the digital equivalent of Jethro Tull,” he states. “They are pushing the status quo all the time. They will get frustrated by the firms that block them. They will leave,” he asserts.

“They’ll quit and form their own companies and do it cheaper and faster and disrupt the industry,” he says.

That’s exactly what’s happened in the United States, he says, citing the start-up engineering firms building data centres for Facebook on the West Coast of the US. “They are going two to three times faster than their rivals as they are doing it digitally with drones and all the other tech that is now out there,” he observes.

In 2017 there will be more digital inspections, more digital commissioning

Bhupinder Singh, Bentley

So what needs to happen? The big breakthrough, he says, will be in workflows going digital. And this year will be big for that.

“Right now, what is paper-centric?” he asks. “Construction and commissioning,” he answers. “In 2017 there will be more digital inspections, more digital commissioning.

“It’s pretty tangible and pretty real and the business benefits are staggering,” he asserts.

Oil and gas lessons

Singh cites the oil and gas industry where, he says, the last two or three major disasters have all, ultimately, been caused because a problem had been identified – but vital information was sitting in a paper stack back in the office.

But what of the companies that are not on board?

“I’ll be blunt with that,” he states. “The companies that adopt it will survive and those that don’t will fail.”

He references inspection and certification body Bureau Veritas, which has signed up with Bentley to help it digitise its business, using reality modelling to transform inspection regimes.

Paper-centric

“Can you imagine how much paper they produce?” he asks. “They are a paper-based business. Yet they want to go digital with us.”

Yet there continue to be examples of the industry failing to reap the benefits. The recent trackbed lowering project in the Box Tunnel on the Great Western line electrification project was seen by many as a digital success story, with the tunnel kitted out with instrumentation and monitoring equipment during the works. But the instrumentation and monitoring kit was stripped out of the tunnel as soon as the project was completed, robbing Network Rail of the opportunity to carry out real, live monitoring of its asset in use. It was seen as a long-term maintenance issue.

“When you hear of those examples you just have to smile and move on,” says Singh. “For every one of those, there is an owner pushing to give us digital twins. Take Crossrail, or take the oil and gas industry,” he says. “There you see owners pushing to provide a platform for operational systems.”

Reality modelling

Siemens, for example, is using reality modelling to train a process plant’s operators in emergency response.

Singh does have sympathies with some asset owners who may find themselves overwhelmed by the technology, and suggests the industry could – should – see that as an opportunity in itself.

“To the owners that don’t, or can’t, or are just overwhelmed, I think there are opportunities for consultants to offer this as a service,” he explains. Referencing the Box Tunnel project he adds: “that company, if it were smart, would have offered the real-time monitoring as a subscription; offered real-time as-builts as a service contract.”

Leap for clients and consultants

That may seem like quite a leap for client and consultant alike, but there are ways and means, says Singh.

“Design, build, operate maintain contracts, where the risk is shared, can be a bridge,” he notes.

There is a further incentive to clients not yet convinced about the value of making projects data-rich: benchmarking. Because a second major advance Singh is looking for in 2017 is work around using the data to offer insights into what works – and what doesn’t.

“The amount of data gathered now is quite a bit. Project teams know which projects have been successful and which have not.

“But we now think that data is there and we can bring that out using our tools,” he says. “That’s a big one.”

And it is coming. “You can see that stuff getting real,” he states.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Paul Clarke

    Great points for debate. Box Tunnel presented a real opportunity to maintain the monitoring system in-situ. That opportunity was offered to the asset owner. A decision was made not to take up the offer. Short term funding seemed to be a driver rather than considering the benefits of using data to inform the maintenance strategy going forward. Brunel constructed Box Tunnel 175 years ago. It was subsequently lined and remained stable for 120 years and during the major track lowering in 2015. Other assets do not remain stable during major enhancement works, and assets deteriorate and impact performance, resulting in significant direct and indirect costs.

    Asset owners are slow to adopt technology such as real time remote condition monitoring to improve understanding of behaviour, condition and performance of aged and aging assets over time. I hear a lot of asset owners agreeing with the principle of monitoring and the need for a digital railway to guarantee whole life cost benefits e.g. developing informed fit-for-purpose maintenance strategies and opex based upon objective data analytics. In reality, the uptake seems slow.

    Behavioural challenges are as much the obstacle to progress as funding ones.

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