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Tech trends are transforming digital engineering

Andrew Harris, Director, Technical Futures and Engineering Excellence Group, Laing O'Rourke

Tech trends are transforming digital engineeringAndrew Harris, Director, Technical Futures and Engineering Excellence Group, Laing O'Rourke

Construction is one of the last primary industries to be disrupted, it is an untapped multi-billion-dollar opportunity. But the revolution is coming; technological advances are transforming digital engineering (formerly known as BIM), paving the way for future innovation. Now more than ever the industry is adopting digital twins as commonplace throughout the lifespan of a project. From stakeholder and community engagement, right the way through to operational management and project completion, digital engineering is becoming the new normal.

Now, we build things twice; once as a digital twin, and the other being the physical build. What was once a sketch on an A1 page has evolved to 5D, 6D, and even 8D digital assets that account for project length, cost, and asset depreciation over time. Digital engineering is more than a static digital image of a project; it is a living, evolving digital twin that expands and grows as it receives and manipulates data over the lifetime of a project. However, to create such a dynamic integrated system poses challenges, the biggest of which is the speed, accuracy and efficiency of how data flows in and out of digital tools. For the benefits to be realised in their full capacity, this is a challenge that is essential to consider. 

Laing O’Rourke is making significant headway in this space, finding new and better ways to collect, automate, analyse and visualise data to better understand our project’s scope.  Tech advances like IoT, virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D laser scans are revolutionising digital engineering. As one of the most digitally underdeveloped industries, accurate digital representation could advance in an industry that hasn’t seen true transformation since the invention of the brick. 

From the inception of a project, the most fundamental purpose is to create stakeholder engagement and deliver value. 

Digital data can now feed seamlessly into Virtual Reality (VR) systems, allowing clients and members of the community to walk through a completed project before it has been built, to experience future state in real-time. This means that expectations are aligned, and stakeholders are brought along for the journey, allowing community and construction to progress in harmony.

VR and digital engineering have removed a lot of the guesswork out of the technical design phase too. Approvals can happen without picking up a single drawing. Instead, stakeholders have a fully immersive experience that demonstrates what the end-asset will look like.  Clients and engineers can virtually walk through the sophisticated mapping technology, leaving nothing to misinterpretation and removing subjectivity from reading plans. Design clashes can be avoided, and spatial relationships understood from a VR walkthrough of combined overlays of structural, architectural and mechanical, electrical and plumbing services. 

At the construction phase, drones and data-based sensors collect information about the site and from plant machinery. This information feeds into the digital model in real time, where those on the ground can better understand their work zones and make data-based decisions such as; plant utilisation, asset management, scheduling, equipment selection and risk mitigation. For example, a major risk for our industry lies in the things we cannot see. Underground pipe obstruction or service strikes can come at a huge expense and blow out project costs astronomically. These days we combine digital engineering and augmented reality to view and manage groundworks in real-time from a smartphone app with pinpoint accuracy. Removing the guesswork from reading complex plans in identifying underground assets proves invaluable in both time and money. 

At handover, as-built drawings that were once red scribbles on a piece of paper have been replaced by technology such as LIDAR scans and custom algorithms. They compare the finished asset to the digital model to record and measure inconsistencies with high accuracy. Lasers have replaced slab checks, spirit levels and tape measures in several quality assurance workflows like deviation analysis, removing arduous tasks and human error. 

Advances in AI assisted technology means digital engineering systems can now self-identify a column or beam in a structure, making the digital asset essentially read and interpret itself. 

Long after a project has been completed the digital twin continues to support facility management and operations. Buildings are becoming smarter by integrating digital twins with IoT and sensors to regulate lighting, temperature and monitor energy consumption. This results in a living optimised building, creating an environmentally responsible space and enhanced performance conditions. 

Digital models are the single source of truth on which everything else depends, including the impending industry disruption. Successfully integrating data into this complex digital ecosystem is the billion-dollar opportunity. If executed correctly, it will form the basis of all future advances in this space, over time the benefits are tenfold. 

In utilising technological advances for better data visualisation, we will generate new ways of optimising a project’s lifecycle.  Having complete, classified and discretised data sets will enable improved productivity and cost-savings. We will have better certainty, progressive quality assurance and transparency which in turn builds trust, better relationships and aligned expectations amongst all stakeholders. In a multi-trillion-dollar global industry, construction error costs can be magnificent. Through accurate digital twins, data-based decisions will improve, thereby reducing the risk of rework, minimise double-spending and ultimately generate better margins and project success.  

In the not so distant future, construction sites will implement new AI safety technologies such as autonomous machinery utilizing SLAM systems. Further down the track we can expect to see entire structures being resurrected through micro-technologies and drones applying swarm theory. Smart buildings will be able to identify if its integrity has been compromised and self-repair just like the human body – and all this will be integrated into our digital systems. Technological advances have been instrumental to the development of digital twin technologies, which will revolutionise the way we construct well into the future.  Don’t let the history of construction lead to an underestimation of the pace of change, disruption is coming, and Laing O’Rourke will be ready. 

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