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Infrastructure in 2014: Reaching for the clouds

Technology is becoming increasingly important in the drive for construction efficiency, and the cloud is a key element of that.

The drive to make the UK construction industry more efficient is relentless, with the government and almost every major client insisting that more productivity can be squeezed from the people designing and building our infrastructure, and that there is money to be saved. But with margins tighter than ever as the sector claws its way out of recession, it’s going to take something far cleverer than sharp pricing to make such a significant step change.

And the problem is not confined to the UK, as population growth and economic development is putting pressure on infrastructure around the world.

“We are 7bn people on the planet right now; by 2030 it is going to be 9bn,” global positioning systems company Topcon CEO and president Ray O’Connor told NCE last month.

“The infrastructure needs will be approximately $60 trillion [£40 trillion] by 2030. The available funds to support that will be less than half that amount. So in order for construction to meet the demands of the future we have to figure out how to fill that gap,” he added.

O’Connor says the solution to overcoming this gap is technology.

“That’s where we see the opportunity - bringing technology to the market to allow contractors, and all trades, to do work more efficiently and effectively.”

The UK government acknowledges this in its commitment to introducing building information modelling (BIM) throughout the construction sector, starting with all publicly funded projects by 2016. When this strategy was launched, cabinet office minister Francis Maude said: “This government’s four year strategy for BIM implementation will change the dynamics and behaviours of the construction supply chain, unlocking new, more efficient and collaborative ways of working.”

“This is our opportunity to assist in educating ‘generation Z’ with the tools and skills that are critical as geodesy moves into the 4-, 5-, and 6-D world”

David Bennett, Topcon

And firms like Topcon are responding, with systems for simplifying the collection of data and for utilising that data for the benefit of everyone involved in construction projects. “All of this technology is to try and bring more efficiency to projects, to remove waste and automate the construction process,” explains Topcon business manager for positioning instruments David Bennett. “We are very much trying to reduce waste across all elements of the build, and helping to reduce waste in the on-going management of end projects.”

The way to reduce waste, says Bennett is to improve accuracy, be it accuracy of initial survey information, accuracy during the construction process or accuracy of the information being shared between the various parties involved in the project.

Modern tools make it possible to collect data at a far more accurate level than at any time in the past, but according to Bennett, the clever bit is what you do with the data once you have it.

“In the big civils firms, the surveyors have tended to go away from focusing on the latest hardware to wanting to know what the software can do,” he explains. “They’re moving much more towards the data element than the actual techniques involved in land surveying.

“The workflow that sits on the software is becoming the most important thing, and how that works with the other systems they use.”

Topcon has a formal collaboration with 3D design software specialist Autodesk in which its software and controller solutions integrate seamlessly with a wide range of Autodesk BIM software services, making life easier for engineers to get construction data to and from
the project.

This includes Topcon’s Magnet Field Layout and Office Layout data collection products, which exchange data not only with the company’s own Magnet Enterprise web browser but also with Autodesk’s AutoCAD 360 mobile app.

“This is designed to ensure that the latest project information is available where it’s needed, bringing BIM to the field,” explains Bennett. “There is the ability now to have real-time data when the job is taking place - instead of having to wait for engineers to make changes and get them to the job.”

Bennett says Magnet also enables civil engineers working on road construction projects to output their design data from Autodesk products to their survey and earthmoving technology, bringing BIM to road construction projects. “It’s saving engineers time in going to and from the office - that’s what’s really switching people on,” says Bennett, who believes the UK industry is embracing the concept of BIM. However, he says, one of the barriers still remaining is the traditionally adversarial nature of UK contracts.

Ray O'Connor, Topcon

“We are 7bn people on the planet right now; by 2030 it is going to be 9bn”

Ray O’Connor, Topcon

The type of technology that is available to make the most of accurate data will only make a significant difference to the efficiency of the industry if it is shared by all the key players involved in a project, but the recession has made some firms wary of doing anything they think might cost them money.

In recent years, sharing information has become far easier - and cheaper - than it ever used to be, thanks to the development of cloud-based technologies, which allow project data to be stored remotely, and make it accessible from anywhere.

As a result, project data can be truly mobile, with team members able to access it on any type of device. It is something we are all becoming increasingly familiar with when to comes to storing our own data in a domestic environment.

“It’s very much like what people do privately with Google Drive, or the way they use Apple’s iTunes for music,” says Bennett.

O’Connor adds: “The software with our surveying equipment and our machine control equipment is sending data into the cloud. There is a massive movement in that area, and that wasn’t even possible five years ago. So you’ll see a big change in our industry with that.”

What could make even more of a difference is if the cloud is used more not just for storing data, but also for manipulating it. Bennett anticipates the launch of software that makes it possible to manipulate so-called “point cloud” data - the 3D information collected by modern surveying techniques - in the cloud, which means that individual firms will not all need computers with the processing power traditionally needed to do this. “It makes it a bit more accessible and affordable,” he says.

With the next generation of engineers already comfortable with using the cloud to store and manage their own personal data and lives, Bennett believes the widespread adoption of these technologies by the industry could play an important role in educating and attracting the engineers and surveyors of the future. He says it is being used to great effect in educational projects like “Design, Engineer, Construct”, which aims to attract people into the industry by engaging them in project-based work at pre-GCSE level.

The initiative is supported by some of the industry’s biggest names, including Mott MacDonald, Laing O’Rourke and Arup.

Bennett believes it is important for companies like Topcon to get involved in encouraging young people into construction to help overcome the shortfall O’Connor identified between the scale of infrastructure needed worldwide and the resources that will be available to pay for it.

Topcon works with geomatics students at universities and colleges around the UK so they can see what is possible with the latest positioning technology.

“This is our opportunity to assist in educating ‘generation Z’ with the tools and skills that are critical as geodesy moves into the 4-, 5-, and 6-D world,” he says. “It is a start to bridging the gap between the global infrastructure need of the future and the world’s ability to meet it.”


In practice

Costain has developed a service to capture and analyse asset data for highways that can help asset owners to decide their maintenance priorities based on accurate and timely information.

Its Mass Asset Recognition and Intelligent Optimisation Integrated Asset Management (MARIO) system includes advanced data capture methods such very high density light detection and ranging (Lidar), high definition photography and technically advanced GPS to effectively survey 1.2M points per second, and then uses advanced asset recognition software to provide rich contextual information.

“We extract contextual information to enhance the visual inspections”

Joe Rice-Jones, Costain

“Technology advances in hardware and software during the last five years have delivered sensors and software capable of analysing literally billions of bits of data,” says Costain project manager Joe Rice-Jones.

“This data is also used to form a topographical survey of the network at a vastly reduced cost to traditional methods.

“Obviously you do not want all of those dots,” he adds. “We extract contextual information to enhance the visual inspections, [and] this knowledge is then used to inform programming decisions and optimise the asset management programme.”

He says this can be an invaluable tool for putting together a demonstrable case for additional funds as part of an asset recovery plan.


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