Digital technology: Are we missing a trick?

Greater use of technology in infrastructure processes is a stand-out change of the past decade, but is it being embraced enough? Jon Masters catches the latest industry views at the Topcon-sponsored round table on digital advances

The premise is that use of digital technology can drive greater efficiency; that entire supply chains can work more collaboratively if they share common design models. The BIM agenda presents an opportunity to digitalise the whole lifecycle of assets. This can include initial site surveying through design and construction processes via BIM models and setting- out and machine control on site, then with as-built data, the operation and management of infrastructure.

So how far has the industry got in realising this potential? That was the subject for discussion when industry leaders gathered for a special round table as 2015 drew to a close.

“There are significant pockets of understanding, depending on the client and the supply chain supporting them on particular projects,” says Topcon’s business manager David Bennett.

“We’ve been talking about this whole agenda for a number of years now, about how the industry can use data and geographic information to manage assets. We have clients here around the table that are using this technology, and we have worked with a number of contractors on projects on the strategic road network, for example: they are using data management in taking designs out on site. It’s not restricted to the roads sector, but there is not yet a lot of use to its full potential.”

Is the problem its reliability and usability on the ground? Mark Lawton, chief engineering surveyor for Skanska: “Three-dimensional machine control (3DMC) has been around for 18 years
 or more, but has evolved from older robotic instruments to modern GNSS and optical systems that perform much better. What’s really changed is the way the data is delivered out to site,” he says. “It’s now frequent, cheap and small. It’s become integral to our business.”

Many tier-one contractors haven’t yet realised all the benefits of digital machine control, says Darren James,

“The software has 
now truly caught up
with the hardware as a management tool. It’s got to be holistic, though. Everyone in the supply chain has to embrace it for it to be really effective”

Nick Richards, managing director, Walters Group

managing director for infrastructure 
at Costain. “It’s about controlling
 and positioning more efficiently and safely, working quicker and avoiding having anyone near the machine interface. Clients encourage use of this technology, but routinely what we’ve failed to do is to convince them in best-value language why to use it.”

Ground improvement, remediation and earthworks specialist McAuliffe Group works frequently with the 
top 10 housebuilders. According to managing director John McAuliffe, machine control technology has become a business imperative: “It’s about making best-value decisions. We’re involved at land-transaction phases with major housebuilders, where it’s about assessing the risks in the ground, then translating that into delivery," McAuliffe says.

“Housebuilders are generally working with very old technology – with bricks and mortar. It’s what’s in the ground and how we extract that value that’s the differentiator.”

Efficiencies that can be gained 
from the latest in machine control
 are “fantastic”, says Nick Richards, managing director of plant, demolition and civil engineering contractor Walters Group. “The software has now truly caught up with the hardware
as a management tool,” he says. “It’s got to be a holistic approach, though. Everyone in the supply chain has to embrace it for it to be really effective.”

There is a role for clients to take in helping embed technology throughout the supply chain. “Yes, we have an obligation to ensure it’s embraced, but it’s got to be fit for purpose, it’s got to be practical, and we need to ensure our workforce are ready for it,” says Transport for London’s head of asset strategy and investment, Andy Jinks.

“There’s a behavioural aspect. The whole technology debate can be a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it helps us drive efficiency and increase capacity; on the other, it can drive a level of uncertainty and even fear. We have an obligation to overcome this to ensure technology is introduced in the right manner. An area of concentration for us on the Underground at the moment is exploring predict-and-prevent technology to improve our future maintenance practice.”


Clients generally have no problem adopting new technology, provided the benefits are clearly articulated, says Highways England senior manager Phil Ellis. “Once it’s understood, if we see the benefit, we will put it on the ground. It’s not necessarily just clients or the supply chain that should be driving greater use of technology. We need to do so as a collective,” he says.

This is all very well, but who should be paying for it? “I think the answer is: it should pay for itself,” says Ellis.

Costain’s James: “Ultimately it should become part of the cost base of what we’re trying to do, but it should be at a lower cost than what we’ve traditionally done. Highways England is now paying less for some items of construction work because we’ve invested in this technology. Of course, if we cannot see a significant cost reduction down the line then we will not make such an investment, but we’re now way beyond any leap of faith with this technology.”

Another aspect to greater use of technology, digitalisation of processes and data management is its demand for different skills and cultural change within organisations. Consultant CH2M has been studying these effects. “We’ve worked with many clients and found there is a cultural change happening; most are embracing new technology,” says CH2M information management consultant Ilias Krystallis.

“Taking a step back, what clients are really focusing on is implementation of standards for use of BIM. We are doing an exercise now measuring the benefits for clients around the development of standards: so, forming a data dictionary and drawing up a picture of what areas of their business directly benefit from particular parts or layers of the technological changes occurring.”

What about the cultural change down the supply chain? Is it working to good effect between interfaces, between suppliers and different processes? Yes, says Skanska’s Lawton: “I sit in the middle as a main contractor. I supply data to earthworks teams, so they can have what they need. I interface with the design team to get what I need, and then I will always conduct a BIM fire drill to validate the data and whether we can use it. That is happening all the time, day in, day out, as normal activity.

“Anything we need from the flow 
of data, we’ve subtly changed so that the workflow goes from concept to construction and delivery without issues. The part about the data coming back, however, for asset management and the like – that sits in another realm at the moment.”

The different cultures of the BIM design world and the site realm do
 not often meet, says Topcon’s Bennett. “But they did at our demonstrations, where we had designers at the controls of high-tech machines” – in a safe and controlled manner, he adds. “This helped show them why surveyors and site engineers are asking for data to be supplied in particular formats, so they could make the connection between the design model and the output required.

“Collaboration may be becoming an overused word in the BIM space, but it genuinely is vital that we pull

“The part about the data coming back, however, for asset management and the like – that sits in another realm at the moment”

Mark Lawton, chief engineering surveyor at Skanska

in all stakeholders to achieve the full potential. We’re not going to bring it about alone, knocking on the door as technology providers.”

ACE can provide a good overview
on divergence in levels of take-up. Policy and external affairs director Julian Francis says: “We see a regional divide, and one related to the scale
 of engineering organisations. Larger ACE member companies, particularly in the South-east, are right on top of 
it, pushing BIM forward as much as they can. The further north we go, the more of an issue it becomes – especially for SMEs – around who’s going to pay for it, why and how should they push on with it. We’re conducting a series
 of roadshows with our legal teams, speaking to regional firms, clients and contractors about BIM’s importance.”

Greater amounts of technology and data can be seen everywhere and throughout infrastructure. How can this industry really exploit the data opportunity for managing assets?

Topcon machine control business development manager Andy McCann: “We have systems where the exact position of the final pass of the cutting edge of a machine can be recorded, loaded to a web portal, and fed back to the engineering surveying team
 for reporting as-built information for operational and asset management purposes. This is the level of data clients are now asking for.”

A good example of likely future
 use of “big data” in infrastructure
 could manifest in management of
 the Underground. TfL’s Jinks says: “Everything’s possible. How can we use our CCTV analytics to understand the wear and tear on stations, or wifi and bluetooth pings to monitor and respond to passenger loadings? How do we use intelligent train weight data to inform passengers where is best to board? We just have to join it all up.”


At the Topcon digital technology round table were:

Julian Francis, policy and external affairs director of ACE

Ilias Krystallis, information management consultant at CH2M

Darren James, infrastructure managing director at Costain

Phil Ellis, senior manager of Highways England

Andy Jinks, head of asset strategy/ investment at Transport for London

John McAuliffe, managing director of McAuliffe Group

Mark Lawton, chief engineering surveyor at Skanska

Nick Richards, managing director of Walters Group

Andy McCann, machine control business development manager at Topcon

David Bennett, business manager at Topcon

Paul Keenan, machine control business development manager at Topcon