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EEJ Digital Engineering


The construction industry is experiencing a digital engineering revolution, challenging academic and professional institutions to catch up. Mark Richardson, director of human capital discusses the issues ahead.


Sir Christopher Wren’s drawings for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666 show the renowned architect’s deep understanding of the principles of engineering. And while today’s architectural students produce amazing designs on SketchUp, few have such knowledge of how buildings work.

Constructors would undoubtedly benefit from a better understanding of design, and designers from a better understanding of how buildings are constructed. Yet over the past 80 years or so the industry has become increasingly fragmented in terms of skills – and academia has, to a large degree, mirrored this. The various disciplines – while each profoundly specialised – have become siloed.

What’s emerging with digital engineering (DE) is software that enables collaboration between all the disciplines, involving more stakeholders than ever before and allowing them all to contribute to the lifecycle of a building or infrastructure project, from its inception to way beyond construction completion. DE is an enabler of better collaboration and it touches everybody, including previously uninvolved parties such as manufacturers and end users.

So the process of delivering a given project in the age of DE brings together the capabilities of architects, engineers, manufacturers and more. But to what extent they understand each other’s role is open to debate, and it is becoming clear that if students are to adequately serve the fast-evolving needs of employers, industry and academia will need to work closer together.

James Eaton, Laing O’Rourke’s Global Head of Digital Engineering, says that the universities will change when the institutions do. "It needs to start with the institutions recognising that roles are changing," he says, "as the universities won’t respond until this happens."

Professor of Built Environment and Honorary Professor of Civil Engineering at University College London (UCL), Tim Broyd, is also Vice President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and due to become President in 2016/17. Having moved to UCL from a long career in the construction industry, he has a unique insight into the issue from all sides, and believes the ICE is already stepping up to the mark.

While both the ICE and UCL are old institutions, Broyd admits, they are far from old-fashioned: "They cannot afford to be if they are to retain their hard-won global reputations as a gold-standard professional qualifying body [ICE] and centre of research and teaching [UCL]." This also means, however, that the ICE and UCL "both need to ensure that new items are tested in some way before entering the professional review or teaching curricula".

The ICE’s learned society, Broyd explains, provides a means both to address industry-wide topics while also being able to focus on individual and emerging areas of significance. "In the case of BIM, for example, an ICE BIM Action Group was formed in 2012 which is leading the ICE’s thinking in this area and includes some of the industry’s leading BIM thinkers. Its external ‘products’ to date include a number of status reports, guidance documents and conferences (including the increasingly popular series of annual ICE BIM Conferences). It is also directly influencing the Joint Board of Moderators which is the pan-engineering institutions body that sets the requirements for accredited degree curricula."

At UCL, Broyd says, elements of BIM are being added to teaching modules across all relevant built environment and engineering undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses. "Much of the subject matter comes from previous research activities and active engagement with leading industry practitioners, which provides a good balance between underlying theory and up-to-date practice.

"Direct engagement with industry is enhanced through undergraduate and postgraduate student research projects, including EngDs and PhDs, through which knowledge is generated. Current areas include, for example, the most appropriate ways of linking BIM with Asset management (AM) techniques, the role of augmented reality in AM and the mutual impacts of BIM and lean construction techniques. The results of such activities are then fed back into teaching.

"Far from being behind the curve, UCL is currently leading the specification for the UK Government for so-called BIM Level 3, which will be concerned with the use of increasing amounts of both as-constructed and in-use digital information to improve the performance of existing facilities and develop better, performance-led specifications for new facilities."

The Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology, Cambridge University, UK Through its engagement with Cambridge and Oxford Universities and Imperial College London, Laing O’Rourke is inspiring a radical new approach to research-based learning, nurturing the next generation of industry innovators and thought leaders

It needs to start with the institutions recognising that roles are changing, as the universities won’t respond until this happens.

James EatonGlobal Head of Digital Engineering, Laing O'Rourke

It is sometimes easy to forget, Broyd notes, that the current UK Government mandated BIM application, which effectively kick-started widespread industry interest in the topic, was published at the end of May 2011, with coordinated efforts only really getting underway in 2012. "Much has been achieved in the couple of years since, and universities and professional bodies have made good progress. Both types of institution need to balance, however, the fast-developing needs of industry with a responsibility for the long-term professional nurturing of young people. This means that action has to be well considered and well thought through, so that it can stand the test of time. We owe that alike to those who are the future of our industry, to their employers and to society at large."

RIBA says that it is "encouraging the architectural profession to invest in the skills, software and process innovations necessary to gain the full benefits of BIM".

According to director of practice Adrian Dobson: "The RIBA Plan of Work 2013 has been developed to support the changes to the building design, construction and management processes needed in a BIM-enabled procurement environment and to successfully allow architects to fulfil the lead designer role".

As well as management changes, he adds, "there is also the need for architects to develop hard skills in the use of BIM software and RIBA is making members aware of training opportunities, such as those offered by the BIM Academy at the University of Northumbria".

RICS has been a major supporter of BIM and works closely with businesses and the Construction Industry Council to ensure it provides clear and practical guidance on BIM training and up-skilling ahead of 2016, when the government will mandate BIM on all public projects, says director Matt McDermott.

"A key milestone in this approach has been our development of the first BIM manager certification – launched in response to industry’s request for a skills and competence benchmark for BIM."

The aim of the new certification is to provide employers and clients with the assurance that the BIM practitioners they employ follow industry-accredited criteria, McDermott adds. "Likewise, BIM competent professionals will be able to demonstrate their capabilities to the sector by using a reliable and consistent approach."

Refreshing industry attitudes

Professor Stephen Lockley, chairman of building modelling at Northumbria University Newcastle, research director at the BIM Academy and a director of BuildingSMART UKI, believes the industry’s attitude to education, training and development could benefit from being ‘refreshed’.

Individuals will not only need technical training on the tool sets, he asserts, but they will also need to develop a more holistic view of the way the industry works in a BIM world.

"Perhaps a more systematic and organisational view of construction will replace the current ‘project-centric’ view," he reflects. "Understanding how to manage and share issues, such as risk and liability, across organisational boundaries, will require the educational establishments and professional bodies to change the way they educate the next generation of professionals. It will also require greater partnering and trust between construction organisations, requiring a mind-set change for many established senior managers."

But the industry has got to do its bit too, and Laing O’Rourke is widely acknowledged as having taken a lead role on this front.

Doctural ConferenceLaing O’Rourke’s annual Doctoral Conference provides a platform for sponsored PhD and masters students to discuss their areas of study with engineers, providing insights to the benefit of both

Having made concerted efforts to accelerate the adoption of DE, it has introduced mandatory DE training to all staff of all disciplines and levels. It has recently launched a steel fixing construction trainee scheme, in line with the emergence of the new nuclear power programme, in response to the need for thousands of individuals to work on challenging and complex structures which are entirely digitally modelled. The scheme is open to both entry-level and experienced employees.

Laing O’Rourke is also training technicians to assemble premanufactured modules and components, and specialist banksmen and crane operators with detailed knowledge of its new methods of working. With all of these programmes of work, DE is the key enabler.

The business also offers a range of entry-level development and fast-track leadership programmes. In all cases, the focus is on equipping the next generation with the skills to take the industry forward; naturally DE is a core component.

We also run a master of science course on integrated systems and innovation at Imperial College and a master of studies in construction engineering at Cambridge, as well as sponsoring 13 PhD students involved in DE and data-related research at the universities of Cambridge, Manchester, Nottingham and Oxford, UCL and Imperial College London.

Yet one of our biggest challenges is how we accelerate experiential training in DE to the people running our projects, individuals typically 40 years plus in age, who’ve already completed their formal education. Young people may be more knowledgeable in the use of DE, but not in the analysis of its implications, or in risk mitigation for example.

There’s a reluctance among some older experts to hand over their knowledge and integrity to a piece of software with parametric capabilities. Older ‘purist’ engineers may feel there’s not enough appreciation of the basics nowadays, but the truth is that we have to respect some aspects of the past while at the same time looking to the future.

The construction industry has essentially done similar things in a similar ways for decades: but since the advent of DE and devices (such as tablets and smart phones) which take that technology out into the field – things are changing rapidly and irreversibly. The traditional command-and-control project management approach is fast becoming obsolete and while we’ve got to respect construction and engineering specialisms, we need to recognise that the people pulling projects together need an end-to-end appreciation – an ability to see and understand the bigger picture.

Accelerating the adoption of DE

DE represents an enormous challenge in terms of controlling design and decision-making. Information now arrives 24/7 and is no longer owned by just a few people. The need now exists therefore for a new style of leadership.

Thanks to DE we are already starting to see rapid advances in material technologies, with hugely exciting developments in areas such as biomimicry and phase-change materials.

DE will also bring about closer links with manufacturing partners outside our normal industry, organisations from whom we can learn a lot. It cuts across cultures, necessitating a standardisation of skills and qualifications. It’s a global phenomenon, dominated by six or seven software vendors, and is already leading to some interesting changes, not least discussion around the (arguably long-overdue) shortening of architectural courses in the UK, in line with those in other EU countries.

DE is clean and creative and the quality of experience and process it facilitates is second to none. It therefore heralds an exciting opportunity for us to get it right in enhancing the image of the construction industry.

Mark Richardson


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