Innovation - the automatic result of free thinking

Mott MacDonald’s newly launched digital R&D facility is pioneering new ways of bringing efficiency and consistency to design processes through the intelligent application of automation, writes Neill Brauders.

From 15 days to 15 minutes, that’s how much we have reduced the time it takes to design a water pumping station.

This dramatic step change in cost and efficiency is possible through our new Create platform, which we have developed to apply the benefits of automation to commoditised design.

The automation of design processes is a disruptive innovation that can deliver significant added value, posing a threat for engineering businesses that aren’t willing to change and embrace the digital revolution - but an opportunity for those that are.

Create is the first product of a new initiative called Ideas Lab, which brings together our brightest minds and challenges them to tackle a defined problem in innovative ways. 

Ideas Lab, a key part of our Go Digital strategy, is not something physical but a sphere for free thinking open to all our employees. It supports efforts to initiate disruptive innovations and is geared to help the business incubate, grow and launch them.

Its flexible, pop-up nature will enable us to encourage and harness the intellectual capital of our 16,000-strong workforce. The formation of teams will vary and consist of the most appropriate specialists, free thinkers as well as practical types, to address a particular challenge.

It is an autonomous space which provides freedom from the pressures of the day job, where thinking can be uninhibited and unrestricted. But ideas are the input, not the output. The aim is to develop revolutionary products and services based on the practical application of new technologies that will satisfy client needs.

Exponential development of IT
Ideas Lab was launched in response to a number of growing commercial pressures. In an increasingly globalised world, new competition from emerging economies is characterised by young, highly skilled and computer-literate professionals uninhibited by the constraints of standard practice. 

And the increasing pace of technological progress makes disruptive innovations ever more likely, particularly as a result of the exponential development of information technology.

Ideas Lab will help to foster a culture of digital R&D and innovation within Mott MacDonald, which historically has been mainly engineering focused. It will establish a common, streamlined approach to identifying, capturing and delivering value. It will drive continuous development and expansion of new thinking, but also promote improved awareness of digital risk.

The first challenge we set Ideas Lab was to remove 90% of human input from the design of a water pumping station. The team working on that project achieved this ambitious target and came up with a solution that took the design time from 15 days down to as little as 15 minutes. For clients gains of this nature can translate into significant reductions in programme timescales from inception to operation, offering a new level of flexibility and efficiency. 

An automated, optimised design system like Create also adds value by promoting consistency in technical delivery, thereby reducing risk. And even though we are using standard components, we can still create multiple design options to deliver better solutions that balance costs and other issues such as sustainability. 

To add to the pumping station module, more Create modules are under development ¬– for piles, filter beds, storm tanks and rising mains. This means more and more of the components needed to build a whole new asset will be the product of automated design, adding further value across whole programmes of work.

Unlocking the keys to automation
We have learned not only that we can automate commodity design, we have also discovered some keys to automation that we believe can be applied generally, not just to pumping stations – and potentially not just to commodity design.

The key is to see design as an end-to-end process: a repeatable series of logical steps that achieve a desired outcome. Second, what connects the steps is the flow of information. Third, identify which tasks would be best done by machines and which tasks should still be carried out by humans. At its core Create manages the flow of information between the human and digital worlds. 

The benefit of automation will be more than just increased efficiency – it will sharpen the polarisation between commoditised design and high-value strategic design.

The automation of repetitive, mundane processes – that is, mainly, detailed design and drawing production of standard components – will free our engineers to focus on high-value activities, such as conceptual design, value engineering and project management.

They can do what they’re best at: innovating and working alongside customers to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges they face, leading to better solutions that not only meet but exceed their expectations.

Neill Brauders is a graduate engineer and Ideas Lab project leader at Mott MacDonald.