Paddy Corkery (Laing O’Rourke) – Lead Digital Engineer at LMJV delivering the enabling works programme for HS2’s phase one across the West Midlands. 

When people talk about Digital Engineering or Building Information Modelling (BIM), 3D design models are often what is mentioned and discussed.  However, I believe we should try to broaden the narrative out from solely focussing on ‘BIM’ and prioritise the word ‘data’ and how we use data to drive decision making.

The BIM, or data revolution saw the industry transition into a world of digital, 3D working. These virtual models now allow for greater interrogation of construction practices to be comprehensively undertaken during the design phases.  This mitigates risk by driving more informed decisions at an earlier point in the construction lifecycle. It allows a team to collaboratively troubleshoot any issues, make changes and analyse potential impacts to a scheme. Having a central model which can be viewed and updated by all parts of the supply chain with critical information ultimately streamlines the process by allowing project information to be viewed in the same place at the same time.

Data is at the forefront of all projects and is something that all major contractors, including Laing O’Rourke, now utilise. It allows you to generate project reports and the key metrics to ascertain both the successes and areas that can be improved upon via access to real time data.

My focus and passion is how data can help people on the ground, those who are physically carrying out the construction of a project to be able to make more informed, better decisions. If we take the HS2 enabling works for example, we have built a GIS platform that allows us to assess constraints that may exist by centralising data. We’ve empowered a collection of ‘data champions’ from across the various functions, to collect and maintain this data for all to use.  In a bygone era, this would have previously existed in multiple spreadsheets that very few could access.  This new platform has allowed us to do is work collaboratively with our supply chain, client and other tier contractors working for HS2. The information is presented in a clear and coherent visual platform that is easy for all to understand and interrogate – essentially creating a single source of truth.

BIM or Digital Engineering is about process not product. Digital Engineering allows for automated processes to be generated that make it easy for people to follow.  These automated processes save time.  We recently automated the submission process for the ecological data received from our supply chain.  Without the automation it would take a minimum of two weeks to make this data available to the wider LMJV team.  Now it’s available the next day.  We have calculated that this has saved over 2700 days of processing time. Automating manual processes also creates predictability and just as importantly, accountability. Favouring more quantitative methods at various stages of a project’s life cycle mitigates the potential of human error and more subjective or qualitative accounts being documented.

If we are to look at ‘BIM’ in the broadest sense, it is about bringing the issues we previously would have encountered at the delivery phase, into the design phase. By doing this, you mitigate delays to programme, minimise reputational issues and ultimately save money which makes for a compelling business case.

If you want to resolve any issues in a project’s infancy, modern methods of construction (MMC) have an advantage. This is evident in Laing O’Rourke’s Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) 70:60:30 methodology. This is where a minimum of 70 per cent of the construction materials are manufactured offsite and delivered to the project for simple assembly, leading to a 60 per cent improvement in productivity, and a 30 per cent improvement in delivery schedule.[i] The Grange University Hospital in South Wales that we delivered had digital engineering involved from the start throughout the design process and benefited from our pre-fabrication capabilities. As a result of utilising MMC at our disposal, our DfMA approach ‘saved 237,099 working hours, equivalent to a 23% overall planned programme saving.’[ii]

As with any significant advances in technology, it is important to acknowledge the challenges one faces when trying to implement change. In the early stages of my career this was more prevalent. I found having advocates for these technological advances at all levels (especially at the senior leadership level) helped others to embrace these new tools at our disposal. However, there was nothing more effective than convincing colleagues who were anti-technology that this would make their lives easier, once those hard to convince were on board, invariably, the rest would follow!

There is no doubt that in the future we will look back at where we are now and acknowledge the huge steps forward we have already taken.  The benefits of new technologies and digital processes to both our projects and the communities they serve will be recognised and rightly praised. I passionately believe that data driven processes will be considered ‘the norm’ within the construction sector.