An engineering firm that adopts and harnesses new and disruptive technologies is one that increasingly sets itself apart as a modern and agile organisation.
The reason is simple. Technology now more than ever has the ability to enable more efficient delivery of infrastructure that stands the test of time.
While recent austerity measures made efficiency a buzzword, a desire to protect public funds and slimline private profits means that even in more buoyant times the premise has become rooted in best practice.
The government, civil engineering’s biggest client, is laying down the gauntlet. Its Construction 2025 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 increasing construction exports by 50%. Technology is at the heart of this.
In this year’s Budget, plans to conduct trials of driverless cars on roads by 2017 were outlined by chancellor George Osborne’s Budget, including the creation of a £15M “connected corridor” from London to Dover, within which vehicles will be able to communicate wirelessly with infrastructure and, potentially, other vehicles.
So if clients want infrastructure that is at the forefront of boundary pushing technology, the role technology has in delivering this is likely to grow out of all recognition.
Added to that, knowing what a client needs, perhaps before the client knows itself, is another hallmark of engineering expertise.
Technology and data crunching to determine how infrastructure has and will be used now enables firms to wield more power over what is designed and built.
NCE100 firms brought 666 different technology innovations to market last year
The fact that 81 of the NCE100 have a digital strategy and a board director responsible for its successful implementation reflects the fact that many have an awareness of how critical it is.
What is really worth showcasing is that, in total, the NCE100 firms brought 666 different technology innovations to market last year.
Investment in technology as a percentage of turnover stands at 4% as an overall average for the NCE100. Perhaps it is understandably not quite up there with those visionary fully tech driven firms like Dyson – which invests 12% of its turnover in technology – but it is a good start nonetheless.
81 of the NCE100 have a digital strategy and a board director responsible for its successful implementation
And what is it that they are investing in? The UK government’s mandate for companies to use building information modelling (BIM) on public sector projects appears to be working – with 81 of the NCE100 claiming to be ready to operate in a BIM Level 2 environment. Software appears to be one of the easier to grasp ways to become a technology-led engineer.
Hardware is another matter, but one that has great power to change our industry – not least with offsite manufacture and 3D printing.
We do not yet have a macro view of what engineering firms are doing with technology hardware, but a glance at the entries suggests that while drones are gaining momentum there is a lack of exploitation across the board of even the more accessible technologies like 3D printing.
Investment in technology as a percentage of turnover stands at 4% as an overall average for the NCE100
Skanska is leading the way here. It is lead partner in industry wide collaboration to expand the use of automation in construction and expand the use of 3D printing in concrete. These projects are designed to industrialise the process and accelerate industry wide use of new techniques. They are sponsored by Innovate UK grants. It is also leading teams developing visualisation technology within a BIM environment to reduce risk, increase productivity, deliver defect free with reduced waste.
Among our other finalists, there were more fantastic examples of how firms are going above and beyond the BIM-only approach. From creating a technology culture, to an appetite for virtual reality tools to help prove constructability and development of ultra modern construction materials – our finalists and winners of the Technology Champion and Technology Trailblazer awards have them all.
Technology champion award winner: JBA Associates
JBA illustrates its commitment to capitalising on technology along three themes – field based asset data collection, super-fast computing and asset management.
Recognising that over 70% of phone users own a smart phone, it has developed its own GISmapp asset management app for iPhone and iPad users.
It can be used on site to add and edit data, without being connected to the network. It has rolled out different versions for rail, flood defences and building facilities.
Its JFlow and Condor products develop super-fast computing capabilities for flood simulations.
And taking the extra steps for asset management the firm has adopted the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in a pilot project to collect ground elevation and photographic information for Internal Drainage Board (IDB) clients.
However, the project has raised concerns about safety of deployment, in respect of commercial airspace near a regional airport and overhead power lines.
As a result, JBA has also deployed telemetered water level monitoring across the IDB areas to pilot alternative strategies to reduce pumping costs while maintaining drainage of agricultural land.
The judges were impressed with the degree to which JBA has embraced technology, embedding it throughout its business.
“JBA demonstrated a strong strategic vision and has backed it up with a level of investment disproportionate to the scale of its business,” they said.
“JBA has demonstrated advanced capability in building information modelling (BIM), going beyond basic compliance requirements and using it as a competitive differentiator.
“Technology is at the heart of JBM’s culture and it has the potential to make a significant difference to the industry.”
London Bridge Associates
Tony Gee & Partners
Technology Trailblazer award winner: Van Elle
Van Elle sees innovation as an absolutely crucial part of delivering value to clients.
Development of its Smartbase product was prompted by the costs involved in Network Rail’s overhead line electrification (OLE) infrastructure upgrades – the most expensive and programme intensive part of the planned UK rail network improvements.
The system is a precast modular signal, gantry and OLE foundation, using post-tensioning to connect precast sections to form a one-size-fits-all foundation suitable for locations across the network.
With tens of thousands of OLE bases to install in Control Period 5, 6 and beyond the system has great reach.
The judges were impressed by the approach this specialist piling and ground engineering contractor has taken to “co-innovate” in collaboration with its suppliers.
“It’s all too easy for service industry businesses to simply accept that the products offered by their suppliers are the ‘best available on the market’,” they said. “Van Elle has demonstrated how it has repeatedly gone against this convention, and got stuck into the technology innovation space to invent and bring to market the next generation of plant and solutions.”
They singled out the firm for reinvesting half its profits in research and development during the economic downturn.
“It services a particularly conservative client base and take full advantage of its R&D capability to prove viability and gain acceptance for what some might view as unorthodox solutions,” added the judges. “It demonstrates original thinking and seek ideas to adapt from unconventional sources to prolong asset life and reduce maintenance.”
The judges were also impressed with the engagement Van Elle has with local schools and colleges.
Costain Expedition Engineering
WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff
NCE100 | Future Tech Awards