Key players from civil engineering and construction industries convened in the NCE and Construction News‘ TechFest 2023 on Thursday, 23 November, to discuss how technology must be embraced as we head into an uncertain future.
As costs rise and the environment changes, those working in fields looking to expand the possibility of what technology can offer revealed details of projects and software they have been working on.
Many of the innovators who spoke at the conference wanted to do so primarily to share information with their peers, for the common goals of enabling growth in the sector and combating troubling times.
To kick things off, Bentley Systems digital innovation lab senior director Greg Demchak detailed the work he has been doing to integrate the metaverse, virtual reality (VR) gaming and cloud storage through the iTwin.
Bentley Systems’ iTwin is a platform consisting of numerous software to be able to experience infrastructure assets with real-time data in a VR experience powered by video game engines as if you were actually there.
Referencing science-fiction author William Gibson’s cyberspace, Demchak’s visions see infrastructure managed through all stages of its life cycle through VR, offering countless opportunities for cost saving and carbon reduction through the use of digital interfaces.
Alongside futuristic tools, some others at TechFest bemoaned the state of the industry and the rate at which burgeoning technologies are being adopted compared to other sectors
During a panel discussion on the use of automation in construction, Taylor Woodrow engineering and digital director Millan Martin stated his belief that construction was years behind the aerospace and automobile industries when it came to machines being programmed to perform certain tasks autonomously.
He said: “The issue in the construction industry is integration. The integration between different companies and disciplines.
“A contractor can build a system but if this doesn’t relate to the rest of the system or the rest of the project, it is redundant. It needs to be able to integrate.
“If there is a way to deliver similar to what industries that are using automation are doing, we need to do a component-based design, but the standards and the government are not prepared for that. As an industry, we do not talk about that.”
He went on to add: “[It can be] really good if the subcontractor does its thing in a very good way, but how will you integrate them and how will you drive efficiencies? How can you drive efficiencies with another main contractor? This is the biggest issue.
“We are not as big as the automotive companies, we don’t have the leverage and the money they have.”
In the same discussion, Arcadis UK tunnelling lead Andrea Gillarduzzi stated that the slow adoption of automation and other machine capabilities was not just the fault of the contractor.
“The idea of change coming from the bottom up is a bit delusional. If you leverage billions of pounds to structure your contracts, you hold all the power and unfortunately there is a reluctance or maybe a lack of understanding or drive and energy to change it from the top.
“There have been immense opportunities in this country with HS2, highways jobs, power generation and so on, and they are all getting awarded with the same standards and with no platform to consider operation and maintenance long term.
“It’s a bit disappointing because they wasted the energy and vitality of this industry. Basically, engineering is about being positive and changing things, but we don’t appear to attract a client that has our ethos.”
Many speakers used the opportunity to talk about how software development is being transformed to enable more people to have the opportunity to develop their own applications, even with minimal computing background.
Aecom power platform lead Vas Moncys discussed the use of the low-code approach to software development allows apps to be developed with minimal hand-coding. Low-code uses a drag-and-drop interface to allow users to build digital software products with their specifications without the need for traditional lined code writing.
Although some claim low-code can be learned in two weeks without any prior development experience, Moncys stated that this was not always the case. He believes two to three months is a better estimation of how long it can take for a beginner to harness current software development standards for creating applications with low-code.
Polypipe green urbanisation innovation manager Charlotte Markey discussed of how her organisation has delivered a project in Manchester, in conjunction with United Utilities, utilising a smart blue-green roof to assess how storing and re-using rainwater at roof level can reduce the volume of surface run-off entering the sewer networks. A smart blue-green roofs are roof gardens and vegetation that uses a system to capture, treat and store rain water that runs through it.
Polypipe believes its research of using this product will develop a greater understanding of how new construction and data technologies can merge to help urban developments mitigate the impact of climate change and population growth, while also enhancing biodiversity.
Markey spoke of the future city where nature and infrastructure are intwined in a cyclical system enhanced by precise data analysis.
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