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EEJ Digital Engineering

Influence on the supply chain

Unlocking the transformational benefits of digital engineering means challenging the traditional rules of engagement.

For Laing O’Rourke, one of the most powerful applications for digital engineering is as an enabler of its Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) approach. But ultimately it cannot progress this agenda entirely in isolation. It needs the buy-in of the entire supply chain: consultants, manufacturers, subcontractors and, of course, main contractors.

For example, the business is currently developing a parametric tool for the design of modular plantrooms. Based on individual building capacity requirements, the tool will automatically reconfigure the pipework, fittings and components to suit. It will then generate a revised model of the plantroom, along with layout drawings, bills of materials and manufacturing instructions.

However, the technology has only limited use at present due to the huge degree of variation in the routing, capacity and type of mechanical, electrical and plumbing services that are found in the range of buildings Laing O’Rourke delivers.

What is really needed is a suite of digitally engineered processes to enable design-to-order elements that complement the plantroom product sets, allowing a smooth transition from design to manufacture. But moving towards this goal means a step-change will be required from much of Laing O’Rourke’s supply chain.


Plant room
Modular Plant-roomLaing O'Rourke is developing a parametric tool for the design of modular plant-rooms but delivery will require a step-change in parts of its supply chain.


The creation of data-rich, intelligent digital engineering models with embedded calculations is now a requirement of all Laing O’Rourke consultancy appointments – but in some cases we are preaching to the converted. Building services consultancy Hoare Lea is one of Laing O’Rourke’s key strategic design partners.

The firm uses Autodesk Revit to assist with the design of mechanical, electrical and environmental building services. Its library of generic components is embedded with parameters such as design flow rates, heating loads and electrical requirements.

The parameters automatically populate equipment schedules so, when a component is inserted into a model, it appears on the correct schedule with all of the relevant design information. This has huge benefits in terms of workflow efficiencies but also in eliminating the contradictory information that can co-exist between schedules and drawings using traditional design processes.

Hoare Lea has taken the process one step further by using the parametric data to drive calculations within component families. This includes, for example, automatically sizing a radiator to match the heating load of the room it is placed in, deriving the flow rate from this heating load, and ensuring that the pipes that feed the radiator are sized to reflect this flow rate.

The firm has also written an add-in (using Revit’s application programming interface to bypass the restrictions of the standard interface) to carry out pipe and duct pressure-drop calculations using UK methodologies – rather than the US equivalents Revit uses as standard.

A number of other add-ins have been created to improve the basic features of Revit. This includes an automatic builder’s work generator, which locates all instances where pipes, ducts and cables pass through walls and places a suitably sized penetration around them, which can easily be scheduled for more accurate pricing by the Laing O’Rourke team. This is exactly the type of innovation on the Revit platform that is needed if digital engineering is to be taken to the next level.

One of the best recent examples of enhanced modelling capabilities is the new 270-bed Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, UK, which Laing O’Rourke is currently constructing. There was a close collaboration with Hoare Lea and other consultants throughout the detailed design stage to ensure the digital engineering model included comprehensive manufacturing and performance data.

Hoare Lea’s central team of digital engineering specialists, led by executive engineer, Ben Roberts, trains engineers at all levels of experience across the firm to ensure the right knowledge and experience is disseminated on all projects. This includes Revit capabilities, ongoing project support and project management considerations.

"Online discussion forums, regular workshops and a network of champions are used to ensure that practical experience is shared and that all offices are able to benefit from each other’s knowledge", says Roberts.

"Project reviews are held with teams at Laing O’Rourke and its building services business, Crown House Technologies, to ensure that learning is captured and deployed on the next project."

Product suppliers

Sourcing three-dimensional geometric models for construction products that also contain relevant design and performance data is another issue that arises when moving toward data-rich models.

Some of Laing O’Rourke’s more forward-thinking product suppliers have already converted their catalogues to a digital-engineering-compatible format. But some are yet to take action and others have simply created geometry without embedded information. This leads to huge inefficiencies, as design consultants have to create their own versions of the equipment content they need – which then requires updating as products change over time.

To allow designers to focus more on designing than on creating content – and to ensure this content is managed effectively so it is always current – equipment manufacturers must take the step towards digital content catalogues. Laing O’Rourke’s strong relationship with its supply chain means it has been able to influence several partners in this regard.


Without digital content our products would just not be finding their way into consultants’ designs.

Sean WaringPosition of Author

An excellent example is Whitecroft Lighting, which has been a key member of the Group’s supply chain for a number of years. When it was contemplating creating digital content from its product catalogue in 2013, the company held a workshop with Crown House Technologies to help define the process.

One of the challenges was the lack of industry standards to define the technical parameters that a particular item of equipment needed in the digital engineering environment. Whitecroft discussed the issues with Laing O’Rourke and its consultants before defining the parameters for an external content creator. The company now has nearly 100 of its main product ranges available in digital form, and has developed the in-house capabilities for modelling the remainder.

The company’s lighting project engineer, Sean Waring, is convinced that taking this ‘digital leap’ had a positive impact on business. "Downloads of our website content are accelerating and we are receiving regular feedback that without digital content, our products would just not be finding their way into consultants’ designs", he says.

The knock-on effect of Whitecroft’s digital engineering catalogue is that the design community will be more likely to use their content – and thus products – in their designs, meaning that Whitecroft’s competitors will need to develop their own digital content to keep pace. This is another example of how Laing O’Rourke is helping to move the industry on.

Whitecroft has also developed the skills to support Laing O’Rourke’s procurement function by being able to populate digital engineering models with luminaire layouts. This means the team can get increased cost certainty much earlier in the design process, before the consultant might traditionally have carried out its lighting design.

Of course this has not been without its challenges, such as the frustrations of working with software products that are at an early stage of their evolution when it comes to undertaking engineering calculations. The software in this case is based around US lighting standards, so calculations must be carried out on a separate platform and the luminaire types and locations manually loaded into the model. This kind of double-handling occurs in many other engineering calculations and runs counter to the promised efficiency of working in a digital engineering environment.

It has resulted in a stand-off of sorts between software firms and design consultants. The software firms provide platforms on which others can innovate by providing add-ins that increase functionality, while design consultants are reluctant to undertake calculations in anything other than a completely functional engineering environment.

Hoare Lea’s example of developing its own add-ins must be followed by more designers if the current stand-off between software developers and design consultants is to be resolved, allowing the ideal of a single common data environment to take off.

Crown House Technologies is currently participating in a UK industry initiative to define technical content for all main building services products. The Group will be using these standards to continue the process of engagement with the rest of its supply chain to get them up to the same standard as companies like Whitecroft.


Whereas the building services sector’s adoption of digital engineering (as opposed to basic three-dimensional geometric modelling) is in its relative infancy, other elements of Laing O’Rourke’s supply chain have more mature capabilities. One such example is Severfield-Watson Structures, the UK’s largest structural steel company.

Structural steelwork contractors are generally seen as the pioneers of early digital engineering technology. Their work was driven initially by the need for computer-generated images for estimating. These were later used to help produce fabrication drawings, and are now being used to provide fabrication data direct to manufacturing facilities.

Laing O’Rourke’s digital engineering relationship with Severfield-Watson Structures started in 2006 on Cannon Place, an eight-storey commercial development over Cannon Street station in the City of London. A digital engineering strategy was jointly developed to increase the design and delivery efficiency of the project’s complex cantilever steelwork – and this partnership has grown ever since.

Cannon Place
Cannon PlaceLaing O’Rourke started its digital engineering collaboration with subcontractor Severfield- Watson Structures in 2006 on the complex cantilevered steelwork of Cannon Place in the City of London.

The two firms partnered again in 2011 on the Leadenhall Building in the City of London, where digital engineering played a key role in constructing the 224m tall structure’s steel exoskeleton as well as in delivery of all other aspects of the project.

Using multidimensional digital engineering technology, a delivery strategy was devised that harnessed the benefits of DfMA. With Laing O’Rourke driving the digital engineering process on the project, Severfield-Watson Structures employed two full-time digital engineers to handle estimations, production, delivery and construction.

Without the use of data-rich digitally engineered models the construction sequence of the Leadenhall Building would have been very difficult to achieve. A total of 18,000 tonnes of steel was modelled and fabricated by providing intelligent information to the three Severfield-Watson Structures production facilities supplying the project. The data extracted from the building model gave access to production schedules of the relevant components and helped ensure the construction programme was met.

The Leadenhall Building model could be layered into models produced by designers and other suppliers to enhance coordination and clash detection. The steelwork erection team also had on-site access to the model, which informed the morning briefings and helped to ensure any issues were resolved offsite. Visual task sheets and method statements were developed with Laing O’Rourke and were used extensively to help ensure installation quality met client expectations.

The Leadenhall BuildingSubcontractor Severfield-Watson Structures digitally engineered a total of 18,000 tonnes of steel for the external and internal frameworks (left) of the 52-storey Leadenhall Building in the City of London (right)

The collaboration between the two organisations is set to continue in 2014, on the 12,000-seat expansion of Manchester City Football Club’s Etihad Stadium. By using the latest digital engineering technologies, both firms will work to deliver the project efficiently with minimal disruption during match days, concerts and other events.

In the delivery phase, Severfield-Watson Structures will attach radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to all steel components so they can be tracked through manufacture, supply and installation. This should help to eliminate the risk of downstream delays, enable site managers to plan work efficiently, and ensure the client has a data-rich model for efficient asset management after handover.

Man City
Etihad StadiumSubcontractor Severfield-Watson Structures will be using RFID tags for all digitally engineered steelwork on Manchester City Football Club’s Etihad Stadium expansion project, enabling each component to be tracked from manufacture through to operation.

Supply chain responsibilities

The exploitation of digital engineering is expected to increase significantly in the construction, infrastructure and building services sectors in the next few years. As it develops, however, the division of responsibility and liability in current supply contracts will become increasingly outdated.

Construction contracts of the future will need to allocate risk more rationally – based on the benefits a party will gain through digital engineering, the ability of the party to control risks arising from the use of these models and the capacity to absorb risk through insurance or other means.

The Group’s most recent ‘digital engineering protocols’ and ‘level of delivery agreement’ have been designed to help the supply chain better understand the contractual impacts of digital engineering. This supersedes any conflicting DE-related intellectual property provisions in existing contracts and covers models and materials held in electronic form.

The new protocol seeks to adopt an even-handed approach to all parties – and is undoubtedly a step forward in reaching an industry consensus on digital engineering projects. Laing O’Rourke’s innovative and sector-leading strategy is therefore sure to encourage the supply chain to embrace and deliver the many benefits of digital engineering.



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