Delivering innovation in construction

That the construction industry lags behind other industries on innovation and digital transformation is well known. A lack of investment in research and development, slow adoption of new technologies, low productivity and inappropriate risk allocation in contracts are just a handful of the common barriers to change, but more fundamentally there remains a lack of incentive for the parties that can make the biggest impact on a project to take action. Contractors, consultants and suppliers are often bound by lowest cost solutions, delivered to meet paper based, transactional performance criteria. In such cases contractors work to fulfil the contract, not to make better quality projects.

However digitisation, transformation and innovation are underway in the industry. You just need to know where to look. From the potential for Universal Building Robots, to 3D printed bridges and Building Information Modelling (BIM) throughout the construction and operational life cycles (not just in design), change is coming. Aware of this Middle East Economic Digest (MEED) and Mashreq Bank asked me to write about some of the world’s leading projects for a report which was shared at the MEED Quality in Construction Awards on 2nd May and will be online soon.

Before diving into the six case studies the report mentions research by McKinsey Global Institute which describes construction as being “ripe for disruption”. New technologies, it says, have the potential to deliver 60 per cent efficiency gains equating to $1.6 trillion in potential savings every year. At the top of the list for investment is digital technology with the research demonstrating that construction ranks lowest of 21 other sectors in terms of digitisation and has had only a 6 per cent growth in productivity since the 1940s compared to 1,512 per cent growth in productivity in agriculture and 780 per cent growth in manufacturing. But the experience of these other industries shows that there comes a point, a tipping point, where digital capability becomes a requirement for survival.

An example of this included in the MEED report is Siemens Building Technologies new headquarters in Switzerland. The firm did not want to perpetuate existing construction processes where contractors deliver a building according to a contract with the data developed during the construction period simply evaporating. Instead they wanted to capture this throughout design and construction and create a digital repository of data, a digital twin, that would enable the new facility to be cost effectively managed for the rest of its operational life. This meant using building information modelling (BIM) to its fullest extent, incorporating not only the digital 3D design model, but using it for construction work packages and linking time (4D) and cost (5D) and creating a virtual twin of the final building. To achieve this Siemens Real Estate went out to the market and demanded full BIM enablement. Not all major construction companies were able to comply. In Switzerland’s building sector a tipping point had been reached and Strabag, an Austrian contractor that has invested in BIM for a decade, was ready.

Siemens Real Estate undertook this transition accepting that it would need to spend more in the early stages of this project. Innovation does not come for free. But this investment would allow the company to manage its facilities more efficiently in future, minimising the lifecycle cost. Making the crucial link between the cost of new infrastructure and its operational expenditure (opex) is a vital step along the path of transformation. Clients may need to spend more, for infrastructure to cost less.

At the same time, incentivising contractors to deliver solutions that will result in better, more innovative, and more efficient infrastructure is also important. The Siemens project was carried out using a design and build contract, which gave Strabag more the freedom to help its client create the most cost effective long-term solution. Use of design and build also gives the contractor incentive to value engineer the scheme. As explained in MEED’s Mashreq Driving Better Value in Construction Report, this step sees contractors look for design alternatives which can maintain function and performance at lower cost. But under traditional lowest price contract arrangements there is no incentive for contractors to do this.

The good news for construction  is that the benefits of digital construction have finally been recognised, a tipping point is being reached, and the industry is investing for its own benefit. To date contractors have told MEED that low margins mean that they can’t afford to invest in digitisation. Now they report that they cannot afford not to.

Other case studies included in the report include:

  • The world’s first 3D printed bridge
  • Universal construction robots
  • Drones in monitoring and inspection
  • Offsite innovation on the Hong Kong, Zhuhai, Macau bridge
  • Digital construction innovation on a new bridge between Russia and China
  • Model based design delivery on London’s Thames Tideway

I will include a link as soon as this is live but here is a sneaky peak of the cover…..

Cover p3


Chilean Tunnelling

Santiago in winter (credit Liebherr Chile)

A few months ago I did a research piece on the tunnelling sector in Chile for Tunnels and Tunnelling International. The sector is extremely buoyant across all major sectors and more is yet to come.

“The market is quite active now, as there are some really interesting projects under development and coming in. There are road projects, metro project, hydroelectrical projects and mining projects,” says José Miguel Galera, managing director of consultant Subterra, which has been designing tunnels in the country for over 20 years and does 50 percent of its business in Chile.

But perhaps the most exciting future project for Chile will be the Paso de Agua Negra road tunnel running between Chile and Argentina and promoted by a joint governmental organisation known as EBITAN. “All tunnellers are positioning ourselves for this really interesting project. They called for prequalification at the end of 2016 and just two months ago it was published that 10 JVs have presented their candidature and 4 are Chinese. The other 6 are from the rest of the world,” says Galera.

The scheme involves construction of twin 14km road tunnels and is intended to improve regional connectivity particularly between Argentina and Chilean ports. Despite the enormous length of the Argentinian and Chilean border the number of crossings is small and largely consists of minor roads. The existing Agua Negra route for example is a minor road used just in summer as it runs along an altitude of 4780m meaning that snowfall blocks the route in winter.

CaptureThe new tunnel will be around 1000m lower and is planned as a twin tube due to its length and height. A second passageway offers many safety advantages and by having two equal tubes natural air circulation is enhanced reducing energy costs. It was also decided that each tunnel as a single lane is much safer from a driver perspective. With two tunnels and one-way direction each, light vehicles might keep a good speed and are not delayed by heavy traffic taking the outer lane.

The two tunnels will be 40m to 50m apart and descend from Argentina into Chile with the Argentinian entrance 4,085m above sea level and the Chilean entrance at 3,620m giving the tunnels a slope of 3.37%. Each of the road lanes will be 7.5m wide with space either side for pedestrians. The internal height of the tunnels will be 4.8m and emergency tunnels for people will connect both main tunnels at 250m spacings along the whole length. Vehicular interconnection galleries will be located every 1,550 m.

The industry is now waiting to hear who the successful prequalifiers will be and whoever ultimately wins this project will undoubtedly take on lessons from other tunnelling projects that have been carried out in the Andes including a raft of hydropower schemes. The most recent of these are the Alto Maipo project and the Los Condores project which both include significant tunnelling works for construction of the headrace tunnels and other infrastructure.

Read the full article in Tunnels and Tunnelling International


Visiting Germany’s Rastatt Tunnel

The exponential development of technology means that I am called upon less and less frequently to pack a bag and carry out a site visit IN REAL LIFE! Make no mistake there is no substitute for visiting a project in person. The story is better, the photos are better, the report is better. But the reality is that magazines don’t have much travel budget these days and the information kept by project teams is better than ever (usually) and so I find myself increasingly asked to call site teams using Skype or the old fashioned telephone and write the story from London.

Every now and then though, I inveigle my way onto a live project and get to meet the amazing people bringing the ideas for improving connectivity, providing essential services and improving economic growth to life. In Germany recently Jörg, Ursula, Martin, Sören and Ulrich of the Hochtief/Ed Züblin joint venture took time out of their 12 hour day (at least!) to talk to me about creation of the incredible Rastatt Tunnel.

But first I had to get there……..

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