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EEJ Digital Engineering

Moving to level three

As the construction industry struggles to get to grips with Level 2 BIM, as mandated by the UK Government on public-sector projects by 2016, Laing O’Rourke is busy looking ahead to Level 3 and beyond. Dick Barker reveals what innovations are in store.

 

Laing O’Rourke is busy looking ahead. The Group is thinking about the future of construction and planning a way forward, getting all parts of the business to embrace digital engineering to ensure one of the industry’s early adopters unlocks the full potential of DE. Our vision is very clear and it goes way beyond Level 3 Building Information Modelling (BIM). Our business vision is totally aligned with digital engineering, one definition of which would include a 3D model that provides a digital portal to all information related to a project.

Having the end in mind is a good starting point for the journey. We envisage a future process, from design intent to site installation and on to inspection and operation, which changes the way projects are delivered, giving real benefits in terms of productivity. An integrated 3D model of every part of the project provides a secure visual digital portal to all related concurrent and historic information, from design to construction to operation. The right information is available to the right people at the right time. All components are checked for conformance and fit, and their construction and installation methods are simulated virtually, such that the way things are built and operated is exactly as planned from model to reality.

Take the process by which in-situ reinforced concrete will be delivered as an example. The best available technology is used to build a virtual prototype of the planned design of all complex concrete elements and their associated rebar and embedments. These are digitally constructed prior to actual construction, clashes and delivery problems are detected and resolved and manufacturing and construction is therefore undertaken from error-free, wholly coordinated and approved production information that has been generated directly from the 3D model. Delays, quality problems and cost overruns caused by uncoordinated reinforced concrete details have been eliminated.

The 3D model and related data used for fulfilling the core requirement of reinforcement detailing is leveraged at marginal cost for other value-adding purposes. The model of the concrete geometry required for 3D detailing purposes is being used to split and visualise the individual concrete pours, design the formwork, falsework and temporary accesses, generate the drawings and schedules for procurement, quantify concrete and formwork, visualise the construction sequence and locate cranes, haulage routes and lay-down areas prior to construction.

Materials are being tracked and visualised in the model, for example, bundles of rebar are being scanned and automatically located. Setting-out information is being fed direct from the model to survey equipment and the installed as-built positions surveyed and referenced back to the model. Viewing tools are used to quickly and effectively communicate intent and assimilate information, and the model is used as a digital portal to all associated information and traceability records of QA status and certification.

Such a transformation will drive value throughout the business. The key purpose of digital engineering is to make our processes more efficient and to allow us to do things that we couldn’t do without the technology. It enables us to be more effective and to move on. By automating routine processes and measurement, we have more time to think and that’s how value can and will be unlocked.

It’s about getting the right information to the right people at the right time, and that is easily said but not easily achieved. Things that have been done manually now have to be understood algorithmically so that you can program them. So you have to understand your business processes and have clear, well-defined transactional processes too. You really have to look inside the business – the labour, plant, material and all the resources that are consumed to create the object that’s in the BIM model – to link to cost estimating, procurement, and so on, and that needs to be really well defined. It’s a big task.

As early adopters, we’ve got to the point where we can design and build first time with no coordination errors and that is one of the big wins with BIM. People talk about the potential 30 per cent savings that can be achieved with BIM; eliminating coordination errors is probably around one-third of that and we are already achieving that at Laing O’Rourke. In terms of ease of effort, that was fairly simple; on a scale of one to 10, I’d say that was a two. The next stage is much more difficult, around an eight.

People talk about the potential 30 per cent savings that can be achieved with BIM.

Dick BarkerDirector, Laing O'Rourke

I’m referring to one of the biggest challenges ahead: that of developing strategies for exchange of data between tools and software. The end game is true interoperability – seamless, dynamic interoperability of systems. We use around 200 different applications across the business, illustrating the complexity at the heart of what we are doing.

Our engineers are working on taking outputs from one application, such as ArchiCAD, into another tool, say Revit, in as seamless a way as possible. Some level of manual intervention is typically required at the moment to turn the output from one process into the input for the next process. Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) standards are going a long way to helping us, but IFC doesn’t deal with parametric interoperability, so geometry migrates from one tool to another. The team is having to write bespoke geometry translations to solve this problem and that’s not an easy task. You need to understand the problem, define the problem, work out a solution in algorithmic terms, test it and use it. There is very little transfer of parametric data currently in BIM authoring tools and that’s why you have to develop your own point-to-point translation tools.

To get to the stage where designs are digitally computable in 3D has required a lot of effort and this is largely achieved through federated models, using batched transactions to take outputs from one system to another. This is still some way from multidisciplinary teams using data at the same time as others, performing different tasks in real time. The holy grail is a common data environment, one where you have the ability to mine it so that you can pull things out from one system for use in another. Eventually, we will get to the point where I am working in a model, you are in the same model at the same time, and we can both see what each other is working on. You change something and I can see the consequences in real time. Work is developing across the industry to develop standards and classifications for the common data environment to allow interoperability. It’s worth pointing out, though, that sometimes it is not worth the extra effort and cost to achieve real-time working when a transactional, batch processing approach works fine as it is.

Laing O’Rourke, National Building Specification (NBS), Newcastle University, BIM Academy and Microsoft are collaborating on a research project funded by the Technology Strategy Board that mines data, taking into consideration history, versioning and permissions, which will bring efficiencies on projects across the board. What we do is structured; there is a business process behind it. Once you’ve got your data structured, then you can start to make use of it. Laing O’Rourke is currently sponsoring 13 PhD research projects, a number of which are specifically seeking to solve some of the barriers that need to be breached to reach Level 3 and beyond. These include data acquisition for improved building system commissioning, agile asset monitoring on construction sites and support of Building Information Modelling with knowledge-based document search and visualisation.

Lessons need to be learnt from other industries too. When we look at sectors like product design and assembly, they are way ahead of us. They already have multiple people working on the same projects at the same time. There’s a lot to learn from these kinds of examples and many reports into construction have referred to this, such as Egan with Jaguar. Why aren’t we doing something about it? At Laing O’Rourke we are looking at what might be better in other industries, looking at what we need to adapt and applying it to our operations. There is definitely a gap between the functionality of tools used in product design and assembly and those used in architecture, engineering and construction.

Laing O’Rourke’s early adoption of BIM and digital engineering is clearly reaping rewards as the Group brings Level 3 and beyond ever closer. The thinking is paying off.

 

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