Bridging the digital gap

Neil Farmer of Tony Gee explains how new research into digital engineering of bridges could revolutionise bridge design, construction and maintenance.

This week experts from consultant Tony Gee, contractor Laing O’Rourke and academics from the University of Cambridge will get started on a two year research project entitled “Digitally enabling the design for manufacture, assembly and maintenance of bridges.”  

Costing £1.2million to undertake and co-funded by Innovate UK, the research aims to rationalise and automate bridge design processes through digital engineering. This in turn will allow the standardisation of some of the most common bridge types and elements enabling offsite fabrication using advanced manufacturing techniques.

“We want to make sure that the designs we produce facilitate safer, faster, more economical methods of construction, embracing the opportunities that the digital environment offers us,” says Neil Farmer, executive director at Tony Gee.

“As a firm we are known for coming up with innovative ideas but we want to take a step back from  programme pressures  and explore those ideas with an academic and construction partner away from the project delivery cycle,"

Neil Farmer, Tony Gee

The benefits of design, for manufacture and assembly (DFMA) are becoming well known, from reducing construction cost, accelerating delivery, removing on site work, improving safety and boosting reliability. But there remains a lot of potential for improvement and expansion of the process.

Bridges for example are largely designed as bespoke solutions with the majority of the work being carried out on site. Maintenance work often involves disruption as existing structures are repaired or replaced necessitating lane closures. In addition construction workers are exposed to work at elevated heights and spend time near high traffic volumes.

Reducing time on site is an objective of many of the UK’s major asset owners such as Network Rail who manage 40,000 rail bridges, and Highways England with 9,000 road bridges. Furthermore the supply of bridges is not commoditised in the UK and price is largely dictated by construction contracts tendered on the basis of mainly one off bridge designs. This could change if the outcomes of the research project are as exciting and far reaching as expected.

“As a firm we are known for coming up with innovative ideas but we want to take a step back from  programme pressures  and explore those ideas with an academic and construction partner away from the project delivery cycle,” explains Farmer pointing out that some early ideas were developed on the recent A453 road widening scheme.

Working for design and build contractor Laing O’Rourke on the creation of a dual carriageway, Tony Gee helped support the use of DFMA by designing seven bridges in a way that promoted this method. “We did a lot of development work on that project but we knew that with more time there were a lot of things that could be done differently.

We enabled a lot of pre-casting and particularly improved collaboration between designer and fabricator using BIM models, but if we were going to widen this out and start again what could we do to make the whole process from design to manufacturing to assembly on site and ultimately maintenance, more joined up and more efficient?” he asks.

Concrete shells were used to create the abutments saving time and cost

An exciting example of this was a design innovation on the A453 where temporary works were eliminated by incorporating them into the permanent, prefabricated, structure. “We did something that we believe has not been done before where we built the abutments out of concrete shell type structures which were then in-filled on site. This completely did away with the need for formwork, cutting down the programme, requiring less operatives and generating safety advantages,” says Farmer.

Building on this then the team will start the first of seven work phases this week which will quantify the requirements of the work before moving on to analysis of the design process, engineering DFMA processes and linking this to BIM.

  1. Quantify, classify typologies and requirements
  2. Capture, analyse design decision making process
  3. Research design and Engineer DFMA components
  4. Integrated set of digital tools
  5. BIM linked quality management system
  6. Data dictionary, data schema and translators
  7. Benchmark and demonstration

After two years the final outputs will include parametric standards for bridge design and construction, methods for selecting standardised components or even complete bridges, and digital tools for supporting design manufacture, logistical and maintenance. For the construction industry and bridge owners then there is much to gain but is there not concern that this will cut out the need for designers altogether? Farmer says not.

“It will do what computer analysis has done for design - make it a lot quicker. That will be the major impact. Spreadsheets completely changed how people work but all they did was revolutionise the process. You will still need the ideas and intelligence that come from human thought."



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