Recognising the risks as well as benefits of digital innovation

The pace of change in the built environment is becoming ever rapid as technology and digital innovation provide tools to help the civil engineer in their day to day roles.

Engineers have evolved from 3D-CAD to using virtual reality to explore projects
Engineers have evolved from 3D-CAD to using virtual reality to explore projects

Engineers have adapted with the times, moving from drawing boards to AutoCAD, 3D-CAD and Revit, to now exploring the world of virtual reality (VR). Tools used by the civil engineer are not the only things to have changed rapidly. Business communication has seen letters and faxes replaced by emails, conference calls and collaboration in real time.

Through these changes the reliance on paper data has waned as BIM software and cloud databases form a common data environment (CDE) that allows collaboration of large quantities of detailed digital models between all project team members. In theory teams work together effectively and efficiently with defined processes which are set and governed by technology.

As professionals, civil engineers need to evaluate both the benefits and the challenges encountered by digital innovation.

The A0 drawing has been the engineer’s mainstay for many years when communicating information on the built environment. Now the creation of 3D models allows engineers to experience their designs before they are realised physically and identify issues and potential clashes before a sod is cut on the ground.

The need for paper transmittal and office based servers has been reduced by the advances of the CDE and the use of the Cloud space for sharing data. Through digital innovation civil engineers have the ability to work remotely or in partnership with colleagues situated in offices around the world, helping to break down obstacles to project delivery.

Virtual reality almost a reality

The use of virtual reality is still in its infancy but this exciting technology will allow the civil engineer the opportunity to experience a design in real time. The engineer can also provide their client with an immersive experience and talk through perceived difficulties at the earliest possible stage.

A current example of where VR could have prevented difficulties is the London 2012 Olympic stadium which was converted after the games to become the home for West Ham football club. The conversion of the stadium has run significantly over budget and has been besieged by concerns over the suitability of the stadium for football, in particular fan safety and experience.

It is clear that there is the potential for VR combined with 3D models to help reduce design errors, material wastage and increase construction efficiencies on site. Ultimately this will lead to a reduction in costs and increase sustainability.

First principles of civil engineering

There are however challenges to achieving digital innovation in the built environment. While computers can process vast quantities of information there is the potential that engineers will be overloaded by data. There is a risk that an over dependence on computer programmes could result in the loss of engineering judgement and the application of the first principles of civil engineering.

There are also questions around cost and how quickly new technology becomes outdated.

To take full advantage of these benefits and overcome challenges there must be changes in the relationship and practises between engineers, their clients and the industry.

Is digital innovation a marketing novelty that has crossed over from the world of gaming? Those championing innovation and technologies such as VR need to provide case studies that outline the potential benefits and obtain buy-in from fellow industry professionals.

Broadening the Institution of Civil Engineers’ membership base to offer membership to technology, IT and other experts will increase understanding and knowledge of the benefits that digital innovation can bring to the industry. This will help drive forward the development of digital innovation, achieving a more cohesive working environment.

If the benefits of a digital future are fully realised they could one day become the foundations on which the three pillars of sustainability are built, an environment in which all aspects of sustainability are captured before a project has risen from the ground.

About the author

Mark Rafferty is a chartered civil engineer with WDR & RT Taggart in Belfast and winner of the 2016 ICE Thinks Award (CEng) for Northern Ireland.