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‘It’s one thing to embrace a concept, but another to realise its benefits' - ICE on digital transformation

27 November 2023

An ICE roundtable has highlighted the need for practical case studies on digitalisation.

‘It’s one thing to embrace a concept, but another to realise its benefits' - ICE on digital transformation
The priority should be to use technology to reduce unnecessary administrative tasks. Image credit: Shutterstock

Understanding and using data is a real challenge for the engineering and construction sector, attendees at an ICE roundtable discussion agreed.

Meanwhile, the sector continues to struggle with low productivity.

This is what prompted the ICE to hold discussions with infrastructure specialists to establish how it can help its members improve the effectiveness and efficiency of their organisations.

On 6 December 2023, the ICE will host a webinar to provide case-study examples of how digitalisation has boosted productivity.

The webinar is supported by engineering and construction software company, Bluebeam.

How do we increase productivity?

The Office for National Statistics consistently reports on low levels of productivity across the construction and engineering sector, but how can improvements be made?

Where do the challenges lie and how can we innovate to overcome them?

The answers may be found in the incorporation of digital technology.

The ICE’s 2022 State of the Nation report, Improving Infrastructure Productivity, placed a strong emphasis on digital transformation.

To consider the challenges highlighted in the report, in July the ICE held a roundtable event.

The roundtable, supported by the ICE’s Driving Productivity Community Advisory Board sponsor, Bluebeam, saw digital professionals delve deeper into the issues raised.

The discussion sought to analyse current behaviours, identify barriers to change and discover what best practice could look like.

Working well with data

While some are exploring how to harness the power of data, others struggle with gathering and collating it.

How can the sector reach a stage where it’s working productively with high-quality data?

This question kickstarted the discussion, with delegates encouraged to share their own experiences.

These included several case study examples of how data has been used to improve productivity through each phase of construction.

Connecting emerging technology with reliable data

Simon Vaux, former director of digital engineering at Transport for New South Wales in Australia, shared how he led the organisation’s digital engineering framework programme.

This aimed to connect emerging technologies with reliable structured data to transform the state’s transport infrastructure.

Digital deliverables were specified for the programme from the outset.

Using data dictionaries and data modelling, a digital asset lifecycle was created to achieve consistency and enable seamless handovers.

It was noted that this approach was specific to Transport for New South Wales and wasn’t mandatory.

Delegates discussed the need for a consistent approach across industry, and to drive change by setting national standards that would have widespread influence.

Consistency is key

Consistent approaches should be established as best practice.

The industry needs to embrace consistency by creating a single, central source of data.

It should also identify the precise skills needed to build data architecture and attract specialists with those skills to this industry. This would pave the way for collaboration and innovation.

The data architecture would become the central tenet of all works, making it easier to access, understand and share information.

Starting on the back foot

The majority of attendees agreed that most projects don’t start with good-quality data.

Often, project planning and completion dates can become arbitrary, with decisions made at the outset without any real knowledge of what is being delivered.

Sometimes, there simply wasn’t enough data to set realistic objectives.

Data must be owned by the client, with a common data model established at the beginning.

There should be a golden thread – a digital thread – of data that links each lifecycle phase, and this needs to be specified by the client at the start of any contract.

The people using the data

One valid point continued to be raised throughout the discussion – while data is one consideration, the people using it are an entirely different prospect.

This aspect concerns mindsets, culture and encouraging people to embrace data.

The priority should be to use technology to reduce unnecessary administrative tasks and to enable individuals to carry out their work.

By establishing common datasets and easily extractable information, there’s an increased likelihood of adoption and, therefore, improved productivity.

Concepts vs practicality

Innovations such as digital twins – virtual models designed to accurately reflect physical objects – may capture the imagination, but the discussion touched on whether a digital twin is ever truly integrated into the plan.

It’s one thing to embrace a concept, but another to realise its benefits in a practical sense.

One participant shared insights from a digital twin programme he was involved in for a major infrastructure project.

He suggested that, for many, building information modelling (BIM) and digital twins were still mysterious concepts.

While some are passionate about their necessity, they are unable to articulate their functions clearly.

Data, when collated and interpreted, can be used to harness the real power of digital twins, but this process can’t happen in reverse.

Data for resilience and conservation

An illustration of the practical application of digital twins was seen in the case of the 2019 Notre-Dame cathedral fire in Paris.

The existence of a digital model meant that the structure could be rebuilt exactly as it was.

This highlighted the importance of data collection in ensuring asset resilience and preserving vital infrastructure and, in this case, significant landmarks.

The push for ‘modern methods’

The discussion also highlighted modern methods of construction (MMC).

The term ‘modern methods’ should be revised to ‘most effective’ or ‘best method’ of construction, it was suggested.

The example of precast tunnels was cited – these date back to the First World War and were considered the best solution at the time.

Engineers should design and construct based on carbon output, productivity and saving time.

They shouldn’t disregard established methods in favour of modern alternatives that may not be as suitable.

Defining productivity

Productivity can be defined in many ways, but essentially it boils down to the output achieved per project, per hour.

It’s delivered by output aligning with the project plan, and this value output must be inherently linked to objectives that are rooted in high-quality data.

There’s a pressing need for discussion about definitions in an industry that is full of uncertainty and inconsistency.

The perspective must widen beyond construction, looking at broader infrastructure and national productivity to better understand how communities, cities and countries operate.

How does society, collectively, derive benefit from the construction industry?

How can projects be delivered more quickly, simply, and with minimal disruption to surroundings and the environment?

The answers lie in the industry unifying to embrace technology and investing time in quality data-sourcing and communication.

Only then will the trajectory start to change.

Continue the conversation

To continue the conversation, the ICE is hosting a webinar, supported by Bluebeam, that will provide practical examples of how digitalisation can improve productivity.

This event will be held on 6 December 2023 at 1pm.

Register now

If you have any comments or questions about the conversation, the ICE welcomes your thoughts. Please contact [email protected].

  • Adam Kirkup, engineering communities manager at ICE