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EEJ Digital Engineering

Smart technology and innovation

The impact of smart technology on Laing O’Rourke’s activities is groundbreaking, irreversible and fundamental to its growth.


Using tablet-based devices and similar technologies onsite, Laing O’Rourke engineers are able to access digital models of building and infrastructure projects, programme schedules, quality assurance controls and, most recently, project control / status reporting. The latter particularly enables visibility across the organisation, permitting us to view and interrogate the status of each component from its initial design to manufacture, installation and on to final acceptance. Importantly, it also allows us to identify any blockages and act upon these before they impact the delivery programme.

DfMA with premanufactured components is one of our key innovations, but our future is equally about the management of information.

Graham HerriesFunctional Director, Laing O'Rourke

Our engineers can now see, for example, whether a component, such as a concrete column is correctly detailed, whether it’s been approved, is awaiting manufacture or, if it has already been manufactured, where it is.

Laing O’Rourke’s just-in-time strategy is a key enabler for site teams who can now drive the manufacturing agenda, avoiding any slowing down of the construction programme. It’s an important factor when you consider such complicated and significant projects as the Leadenhall Building, where the footprint of the building is the footprint of the site, with no room whatsoever for the storage of materials or components.

Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) with premanufactured components is one of our key innovations, but our future is equally about the management of information. We have an expectation as an organisation that all of our staff, at all levels, have at the very least an understanding of digital engineering technology and the benefits it can bring to the business.

Laing O’Rourke has to date applied DfMA principally to large structural elements, but it is now starting to focus attention on mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) components. This includes modular plantrooms incorporating parametric digital modelling, where pipes are automatically resized in response to their required flow. It also includes manufacturing facilities for the latest pipe-bending technology, designed to minimise potentially vulnerable pipe joints.

These modular plantrooms are part of our wider ‘product family’ approach. Here, products can be optimised and scaled to suit the needs of the large majority of projects, with off-the-shelf designs and manufacturing instructions that enhance quality control and production automation. These designs are optimised and tested prior to manufacture using digital engineering tools on computer.

It’s all about value engineering, a process already established in the automotive and aerospace industries, resulting in product improvements and heralding significant changes to the way things are built, specifically the sequencing of construction.

There is a potentially problematic tendency in the construction industry for people to design things their own way, with little functional justification to nomenclature. It is important though that everyone involved in DE understands the impact it and DfMA have on the phasing of a project, with each component having a unique identifier for its unique position – with a unique manufacturing and installation date. Thanks to the deployment of DfMA technology, MEP components, traditionally installed at the end of a construction project, can now be installed during construction and the building built around them. Offsite manufacturing also enables early testing and precommissioning of components. For example, we can connect up and verify a plantroom before it is delivered to site, reducing the commissioning programme and associated inherent risk.

We have to recognise that offsite manufacturing revolutionises everything.

Graham HerriesFunctional Director, Laing O'Rourke

Custom House station is a classic example of Laing O’Rourke using the very best approach to DfMA, leveraging DE and smart technology to monitor and control the project status through a solely digital approach.

While smart technology changes completely the way we think about construction sequencing, it also means greater certainty of cost at an earlier stage in a project. One way that we realise thisis with digital engineering tools that were built in-house to link data to the model from various external sources. This enables the colour coding of model components against the attached data, and has been an extremely useful tool to communicate progress to stakeholders, allowing for a clear, dynamic, visual identification of a critical project path and upcoming work through the life of the project. This method of digital engineering not only helps site teams to better manage their project, but also helps drive our DfMA agenda due to improvements in logistics and materials scheduling.

Think of HS2, for example, with its numerous bridges, and the benefits that might be derived by designing them around a product family – and leveraging shared components – as is done in the automotive industry. We have to recognise that offsite manufacturing revolutionises everything. People talk about former Team GB cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford’s ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. I believe we’ve actually taken this approach to another level; what we’ve adopted is a disruptive innovation agenda. On the A453 project in Nottinghamshire, for example, we installed a bridge abutment and beams in three working days; this is disruptive innovation in practice. In comparison, the traditional in-situ approach would have taken weeks of site time.

The DE agenda can help a client visualise and walk through a model of an as-yet-not-built project and minimise any design churn. With Oculus 3D headsets clients can not only see walls, lift shafts and light wells in context with each other, but they get to experience them for how they will be once built. There’s no reason why such technology hasn’t been more widely adopted; when they see it, clients like it.

In the future DE will impact further on the world of MEP, where ever-higher rigour is required, and on product lifecycle management, particularly in the tracking of products from cradle to grave – as it does already in the aerospace and automotive industries. It will enable us to store initial designs and to record QA checks and assembly and manufacturing instructions. This is useful for everybody, from the architect and design engineer to those responsible for aftercare. Airbus, for instance, could not operate without a comparable product lifecycle management (PLM) system, and such a system is critical when designing for the high-rigour nuclear environment.

In the aerospace industry, the use of PLM with the digital model is totally integrated because of the rigorous requirements for design assurance: buildability is critical, but so is maintainability. In construction, on the other hand, the maintainability problem is commonly overlooked and relies on an asset management (AM) capability, as we’re not incentivised to add value for handing on from construction to operation. Clearly the constructor is best placed to deliver a project with AM in mind, but this requires a change in approach in how design-and-build contracts are let.

The expectation now is that a BIM model is handed over to a client for asset management use, but who updates the model post-occupancy depends on the owner and whether or not the skill and desire is there to maintain it. This contrasts sharply with what happens in the aerospace industry, with its ongoing feedback and regular systems upgrades.

Yet the technology exists for us to produce intelligent AM models with fault tree diagrams for pinpointing failure. Laing O’Rourke is looking at creating a highly intelligent AM provision, centred around our ability to choose the most appropriate components that allow condition-based monitoring instead of having to follow a regime of planned preventative maintenance. If we’re monitoring it electronically we can see how a structure is performing and implement a more efficient condition-based maintenance regime, for its entire lifecycle.

Implementation of this technology would require higher capital investment rather than operational expenditure and an approach radically different to that of both Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and Public-Private Partnership (PPP).

Fundamental to the UK Government’s desire for BIM and soft-landings in the construction industry is the need to change the approach from design-and-build followed by handover-to-operate, to an integrated approach, such as that adopted in the defence industry, which places key maintain-and-operate requirements on all new equipment procurement contracts. Technology is only one aspect of the problem; more connected thinking and barrier removal is required if the industry is to truly leverage the advantages that DE brings.

Graham Herries


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