Highways innovations paving the way to a digital future

With automated paving technology, the highways industry is taking the lead on litterally paving the way to a new digital era, writes Rachael Bennison.

In recent years the highways sector has been embracing a number of pioneering digital tools and practices that are helping to improve efficiency and deliver wider benefits for clients and asset owners.  

A data-led approach to highways maintenance is increasingly leading to greater build efficiency and infrastructure management. This is being driven by Building Information Modelling (BIM), which allows clients and contractors to better understand the whole-life performance of assets through detailed and fully traceable records of their composite materials and building fabric.

Government guidelines introduced in 2016 mandate that all highways projects funded by the public purse must meet a national standard of construction management, meaning that the importance of a data-led investment and works programmes will only continue to grow. 

New technology therefore provides opportunities for operatives to work smarter and support a more productive, efficient and financially lean construction process. In highways terms, the ultimate goal is to move away from a cycle of inefficient and costly reactive repairs towards a condition-based preventative maintenance process. 

Automated paving technology

Automated paving is a new technology combining innovative new hardware and software that has been developed and refined by Tarmac to deliver a range of benefits for highways authorities and asset owners. 

Designed to enhance and improve surfacing quality during the laying and compaction process, the system collects data that can be combined with manufacturing information to create an accurate record of the condition and material composition of our roads.

Thermometers, sensors, and GPS tracking location systems on paving and compaction equipment record key metrics about the quality of the installation during the construction process, from the type and temperature of materials used to the ambient weather conditions.

As well as capturing data throughout a pavement installation, the technology provides operators with live, real-time guidance to improve the laying and compaction quality.  

Once completed, the system matches GPS location data to generate an electronic construction and compaction record specific for each load. The dataset is then mapped and accessible via software for analysis, providing a permanent on-demand record for the entire asset.

Long-lasting benefits

The opportunities for clients, consultants and contractors in adopting a new digital approach are significant.

In the short-term, the technology can help to ensure a project is completed correctly and more efficiently. By enabling more precise working, completion times can be boosted, reducing labour and plant costs.  

Road users also profit from a surface that delivers a superior and smoother ride, while any quality issues that may arise without the availability of live data at the point of construction are removed, therefore minimising disruption that could be caused by expensive reactive repairs.

However, the benefits of creating an accurate, digital record of a road can be even further reaching. 

Firstly, having access to this data can help local authorities inform their asset management plans, which in turn can help them unlock additional funding through the Department for Transport.

Secondly, having a broader picture of an asset can facilitate evidence-based spending decisions, crucially helping with long-term planning for the delivery of resilient maintenance programmes.  

For example, data analysis can potentially identify why and when a road might fail.  It therefore becomes more straightforward to recognise when preventative measures should be carried out in future and can equally generate financial savings by lengthening a road’s repair cycle.

Finally, well-presented and robust data can also be key to making a meaningful case to politicians for new investment in highways renewal programmes, as well as selling back the advantages of the work already completed.

A smarter future

Employing a data-led approach to highways projects can provide a range of advantages and undoubtedly make a substantial contribution to the future of the UK’s roads.

By working more collaboratively, adopting innovative technologies and engaging early the industry is already contributing to a more advanced and efficient approach to maintaining highways networks.

The technology is already delivering substantial benefits, but the challenge now is to make its specification widespread to better inform asset management plans and boost whole-life performance.  

At a time when authorities are increasingly being challenged to embrace innovation, work smarter and boost efficiency, the highways industry is already taking the lead on paving the way to a new digital era.

Rachael Bennison is the continuous improvement manager at Tarmac Contracting.