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EEJ Digital Engineering

Exploring efficiency

The next phase in the development of Laing O’Rourke’s innovative DfMA approach will see the Group driving efficiencies in the design and manufacture of advanced mechanical and electrical products.

PlantroomBenefits of scalable modular plantrooms

Imagine a future where construction operates in the same way as other major manufacturers such as the aerospace and motor industries. The process runs seamlessly from design, pricing and planning through to materials procurement, manufacture and assembly and on to delivery. 3D design tools are linked to product selectors, with integrated software taking those designs on to robotic manufacture, with all the time, quality and safety benefits that can bring.

Well, the future has arrived and this brave new world can be found at Laing O’Rourke’s Explore Industrial Park (EIP), in the East Midlands, near Worksop. Currently the development comprises a manufacturing facility, which supplies precast concrete components for projects up and down the UK. Next, the Group will turn its attention to the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) elements of the construction cycle, where there is huge scope for greater efficiencies on today’s building and infrastructure projects. If we look at hospitals, airports and commercial buildings, there are masses of similarities in the MEP elements. Yet we, as an industry, deliver a bespoke solution every time. Even on a multi-storey building, every floor might have a different plantroom.

The Group envisages a future that is similar to the way the motor industry offers options to buyers – you choose the MEP system you want from a set of product options that are then assembled by Laing O’Rourke in its factory, under controlled conditions, with a level of quality assurance not usually on offer from the construction industry.

Take the Volkswagen Audi group as an example. The wiring loom on an Audi A4 is the same as the one on the A6, which is the same as the Skoda Octavia and even on a Bentley. Laing O’Rourke is simply taking the lessons learnt from the automotive and aerospace industries and applying them to construction.

Laing O’Rourke is looking to develop the EIP campus with a new advanced manufacturing facility which will see the Group add to its structural element capabilities by producing MEP modules, plantrooms and risers at the site. But this goes beyond accepted prefabrication and offsite manufacturing techniques, in that Laing O’Rourke will take architects’ and consultants’ designs and integrate them fully into the company’s Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) ethos. Consultants will be able to make design changes and our software will make the necessary tweaks to the MEP design and link that to our manufacturing process. We will automate it all – the pipework, wiring, hot and cold water services, etc.

MEP product design using digital engineering softwareBuilding it 'virtually' to perfect it and reduce issues in the actual construction phase as much as possible

The EIP team is currently trialling a beta version of an in-house developed software tool that can take an engineer’s design to assemble the ideal MEP solution and calculate the necessary air-flow rates, power, and so on. If any changes are made to the design, you don’t have to do anything more than use a simple drop-down menu to reconfigure the building model. This sort of technology is commonplace in the aerospace and motor industries but revolutionary in construction. We are adapting technologies, processes and approaches to digital engineering from other sectors and adding factors that are unique to our business, as well as adding elements of research to take us to the next stage.

The benefits of such an approach are clear. If you manufacture in a factory environment as opposed to onsite, it is bound to be of a higher quality because the people building it are following a set procedure. We are going for a certified product that has been through a design process. Early design is key. If you can get this right and reduce the stages leading up to manufacture and assembly then you eliminate human error and get huge benefits from longer-term supplier agreements – which is probably a first in the construction sector and encourages innovation throughout the supply chain.

Getting to this stage has involved a lot of hard work, with the team developing software tools that are compatible with those used by architects and engineers. Unlike the aerospace and automotive industries where there are only a few established product design tools, construction has a plethora of packages such as Autodesk Revit, Bentley and ArchiCAD to name but a few. Where we don’t have a tool off the shelf, we’ve employed a team to write plug-ins for the major packages. We are trying to encourage the industry to catch up with the aerospace sector. Our ambition is to get vendors to do this for us.

Once designers have chosen MEP products and systems from Laing O’Rourke’s offering, EIP will then produce a selection of standardised products including plantrooms and risers. The team is in the process of selecting appropriate systems for the factory, including product lifecycle management, enterprise resource planning, material requirements planning and manufacturing execution system tools, in much the same way as any major manufacturer would.

While the new manufacturing facility is still in development phase, the Group is already planning ahead. The next stage is to start tracking the performance of products out in the field, feeding that back into the manufacturing process, and we’ve already got an operation centre at EIP ready to start collecting data from products.

Sensors will be placed on equipment that can wirelessly send data back to EIP for monitoring. In the same way that a company like Rolls-Royce can tell you how every one of its engines is operating, anywhere in the world, we can do that with our plantrooms to see how they are performing. We will use monitoring, diagnostics, prognostics and trending techniques so that next time we build a plantroom, we know where the areas for improvement are. For example, Laing O’Rourke is currently demonstrating to the water sector the benefits of applying the aerospace model to sewage treatment works, monitoring flow rates, water levels and leakage detection onsite.

Digital Engineering in practiceA 3D model of a corridor module and the resulting product in-situ

Digital engineering allows the MEP to be designed in the right way for the services to function.

Dr Phillip CartwrightElectrical Engineering Director, Laing O'Rourke

The ultimate goal is to take all of that learning about plantroom performance and automate the commissioning process. When we’ve understood a bit more about performance in the field we want to build a simulator that represents the environment that the plantroom will go into, and then commission it remotely before it leaves the factory. The plantroom would then be auto-configurable when it gets to site, in much the same way as you might set up your television when you take it out of the box at home.

The diagnostics and trending also lends itself to greater knowledge of when a component, such as a motor, is likely to fail. If we can signal that part X may fail in two to three days’ time, then there is a better chance of scheduling in a maintenance visit for replacement, which is far more cost-effective than an unscheduled call-out. Who knows – with the advent of 3D printing, perhaps the maintenance team can simply print out a replacement part from the building model.

Rolls-Royce used to sell engines, now they lease you power by the hour. You can only do that if you know the physics of failure – you have to have confidence in the performance of the products you’ve manufactured. I am keen for the industry to become less fragmented, one where the facilities managers are not a separate sector to the design and build process. Too often the building is handed over to the client and all that design and construction knowledge is missing from the asset management (AM). Digital engineering can ensure that information is captured and allows MEP components to be designed in the right way for the services to function. This kind of AM is proving very attractive to clients, and not just to the water sector: Laing O’Rourke is moving into the large-scale power sector, where knowledge about performance of the facility is absolutely key.

Clearly, Laing O’Rourke’s digital engineering and DfMA techniques are offering clients a glimpse of the future today. By early engagement with the client team, who select from a standard library of products, Laing O’Rourke’s transformation of construction towards a manufacturing approach, similar to the motor and aerospace industries, is opening the door to significant improvements in build quality, lower capital and operating expenditure and reduced carbon footprints.

Now that’s the future.

Phillip Cartwright


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