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Future technology: Breaking new ground

Building information modelling and big data are throwing up new opportunities for civil engineering firms.

There was a time when software firms reacted to the needs of engineers, providing them with the tools to accessorise what they were already trained to do. But at a recent summit held in Boston, United States, top of the agenda was how technology will radically inform not just how engineers work, but what they design and build.

Building information modelling (BIM) has taken the civil engineering industry on quite a journey so far. But now asset management, big data and
collaboration in software design are set to drive further change.

Digital railway

Superhighway: Controlling data is becoming increasingly important

The change is evident when you hear how software firms are using the language of the most forward thinking, questioning big clients to assist the industry. Speaking at the event in May, Amar Hanspal, senior vice president of Autodesk’s information modelling and product group, warned that it would never be too early to start talking the right language.

“We’re still in the early to mid phase of adoption of BIM around the world,” he said. “So it feels a little funny to be talking about the future when the second phase of AEC [architecture, construction and engineering] technology is still being adopted.”

But the distinction between the here and now and where we want to be is becoming clear - BIM falls into the category of being a tool that responds to customer needs, whereas the speakers at the event were focusing on making tools that customers - throughout the supply chain - do not yet know they will need.

“We’re still in the early to mid phase of adoption of BIM around the world”

Amar Hanspal, Autodesk

“The nature of demand - the way customers and consumers determine building and infrastructure needs and relevance is evolving,” said Hanspal.

And so, unsurprisingly, the means of production is changing too. Big data is one of the first things that countries, clients,
engineers and users need to crack. Because, Hanspal predicts: “Data will inform all decisions. It will be at the centre of the user experience.”
Basing decisions on real and useful data has the potential to deliver great efficiencies that are not yet viable - a recent case in point is London Bridge station, where Network Rail did all the passenger flow modelling in the world to help it conduct its extremely complex station rebuild, but sadly could not avoid the crippling disruption for its users when works ramped up.

Beginning with the end in mind will begin to drive the need for all this data. The potential of software that interprets big data to be a truly disruptive technology will be realised because of the increasing awareness that an infrastructure project is not simply about design and construction, but rather comes fully to life when it begins to be used.

“I wouldn’t say modular is sweeping the industry, but where things are predictable - such as in schools and housing [it could]”
Amar Hanspal, Autodesk

It is at this point that sensors capturing expansion of bridge joints in use, apps capturing
images of assets going wrong and, of course, real time people flow at stations, can really unlock a new understanding of how infrastructure behaves and copes in real use.

But that is a wealth of information to be captured and getting a sense of how you handle big data is still beyond many.

“Every firm has its own set of big data,” says Hanspal. “They know they’ve done something before but they don’t know how to find it.”

New generation

And once they find it, will it be the traditionally trained engineers who can read and interpret it? Or do we need a new generation of technologist engineers who have the traditional training so revered in our industry coupled the ability to crunch data?

For those engineering firms which get ahead on data the potential to exploit it goes beyond the obvious, and Hanspal believes it may make great business sense.

Because even with the green shoots of economic recovery firmly taking root in the UK, many contractors are unable to stimulate the same recovery for their margins - in particular for those who find themselves in the traditional civil engineering contractor sphere.

Still, there remains an underlying feeling that work must be won, even at the lowest margins, for contractors to stay in the game and protect brands against stakeholder nervousness.

‘Bid low first, claim later’

This leads to the inevitable “bid low first, make claims later” culture that the industry has for so long struggled to shake off. It is a shame because the approach is not even working right now in the home market with increasing numbers of European (and
Chinese?) contractors undercutting and winning work ahead of local competition.

In the age of collaboration it seems there is less appetite for so much adversarial time wasting too. So, Hanspal advises, for those businesses looking to adapt to a new way of working, one thing they can do is to create and take ownership of the data and model for an infrastructure or complex building project. This can enable them to move into the sphere of facilities management - making themselves indispensable in new ways to clients.

Firms have been adopting a similar approach for years, taking greater chunks of project management work. So could they do it here to help boost profits?

Innovation demand

But one other area of improvement is in how the firms square up on innovation.

There is an altogether too familiar complaint in construction and engineering that firms, with the odd rare exception, are doing far too little in the way of research and development for the services and products that they offer - offsite manufacture and smart materials immediately spring to mind.

And in these cases, automotive, aviation, sportswear and tech-giants like Google are preparing to leave our more traditional experts way behind the curve.

Offsite fabrication

“The scale of what you can fabricate in the AEC industry is fascinating,” says Hanspal. “The future of how buildings are made will look a lot like how we build ships - with parts fabricated offsite.”

At the moment, Hanspal is keen to emphasise that the revolution in offsite manufacturing may be limited to projects where elements are repeatable.

“I wouldn’t say modular is sweeping the industry, but where things are predictable - such as in schools and housing[it could].”

There may, however, emerge a trend that proves that offsite manufacturing, just as BIM proved, does not remain confined to the repeatable work out there but proves itself in ways that are unexpected.

That is something that all tech firms will be keen to detect early on. It is something that can happen at a country level too. Just as happened with telecommunications, some developing nations are already out of the starting blocks where developed nations like the UK think they have made great progress with, for example, mandating the use of BIM.

“On the one hand, developing nations are leapfrogging developed nations,” says Hanspal. “Smart infrastructure is one example of this.”

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