Round table: Digitalization and innovation

Geotechnical engineers recently debated how the industry can use digital products and innovative solutions to improve design and construction and get better value.

A recent round table event held in conjunction with the GE Smart Geotechnics conference and hosted in association with Mott MacDonald discussed in detail the problems around data sharing across the industry.

Delegates also examined the need for more governance and policy on data sharing and storage and considered who can truly influence innovation.

Mott MacDonald global practice leader for geotechnics Tony O’Brien said that the commercial sensitivity of data is one of the biggest problems for companies seeking to access data to drive digital solutions and innovations.

O’Brien, who at one point worked closely with one of the UK’s leading piling contractors, said: “At that time pile test data was seen as being incredibly commercially valuable for a specialist contractor. So, would you really want to share that data when it has a commercial value?”

Keltbray Piling managing director Stuart Norman added that companies are even more reluctant to share potentially “bad data”. He said: “It’s not just the data when everything goes well, in terms of the commercial advantages, it’s the data when things don’t go so well – you don’t want to admit to your own mistakes.”

Saalg Geomechanics founder and chief executive Cristian de Santos observed that some companies are also suspicious of sharing their data with outside people for analysis, because they see it as akin to being audited.

“Often people still think that you are auditing their job by analyzing their data. For us, our impulse is data – monitoring data and numerical models. If you can analyze historical data, you can better manage and plan your geotechnical campaign. But people still see that you are auditing them.”

Government legislation to encourage companies to start sharing data and seeing the common benefit of it could help solve part of this problem, he said.

National Highways principal geotechnical advisor James Codd noted that this picture is beginning to change in the UK, with more government intervention and policy encouraging data sharing.

Indeed, National Highways has a memorandum of understanding under which all of its Association of Geotechnical & Geoenvironmental Specialists (AGS) file format data is shared with the British Geological Survey (BGS) through its Geotechnical and Drainage Management Service. Another development that has come about more recently is the inclusion of ground investigation data in the context of the Geospatial Commission’s Construction Playbookhe said.

“Tea Construction Playbook requires government contracts to share AGS data with the BGS, so the guidance is there. The next step is making it part of procurement of contracts. I don’t think legislation is there yet – it is just a playbook; it’s not mandatory. But it’s the first step, isn’t it?”

Mott MacDonald geotechnical director Rob Talby also agreed that things were changing. He said that the playbook had crucially come out of the government’s Geospatial Commission, which is “trying to reduce the clashes in the ground by creating models of the ground and reducing the cost of repeatedly putting boreholes in similar places”.

He noted that this is a “real step change compared to four or five years ago”.

A-squared Studio founder and director Tony Suckling competed that companies now seem to be more willing to share borehole data.

“I remember a conversation, a decade or two ago, where people were saying, people will never share borehole information. But now companies across the industry are routinely sharing it,” he said.

But given the large amounts of data being collected and shared, Codd said this raises new security concerns.

“The other risk of sharing data is terrorism. As an organization, we are moving towards sharing all our data, using a data lake that will hold geotechnical data, structural data, drainage data – everything. So, there are concerns there around security.”

He continued: “Could we categorize certain asset data types differently to others in terms of security? Should we treat geotechnical data as potentially less sensitive than, for example, structural data?”

Another concern is simply that we end up with too much data, said Atkins chief geotechnical engineer and Sizewell C geotechnical lead Mark Scorer. He drew a comparison between data collection and taking photographs on an analog film camera which can only take a finite number of shots on one film, and using a digital camera that gives you an infinite number of shots.

“Just because we can collect all this data, it doesn’t mean that we should. We’re collecting potentially too much data that we can’t, or haven’t got the time, to monitor and look at in detail later,” he concluded.

BKwai founder and chief executive Sakthy Selvakumaran agreed adding that often this data is expensive to collect.

“A major asset owner who has implemented quite a lot of instrumentation has found that the problem was they were holding volumes and volumes of data. They were realizing it was costing them. And asking: since this is a relatively new asset, do we bother? We need to help people understand both the emerging opportunities and what would give them operational value.”

Could the creation of a database that certain people can access for certain data be the key to how the geotechnical sector can collect and share data in a smarter and safer way?

“Or could we create a platform similar to the AGS? One for monitoring data, where whoever shares some data has the privilege of being able to see the other data in a portal similar to the BGS portal for boreholes?” asked AKT II technical director Dimitrios Selemetas.

Talby responded by suggesting there could be two types of data: “Publicly available data that’s useful for background information only, for example boreholes, pile records and case studies.

“And then the digital twin on an asset which the asset owners want to keep, because it’s their asset and can use the digital twin for the maintenance and modification of that asset.”

Selemetas added that “if we are to move closer to a more performance driven approach to the design of foundations, then access to a database of monitoring data organized in a standard format would add real value to our industry”.

But there are still the questions of how to use this data to drive innovation, and who can truly influence the application of innovation and digitalization.

While digital systems are getting faster and becoming more joined up, some industry leaders have observed that at an implementation level there are more barriers to innovation now than 30 years ago.

Suckling blamed a failure to implement certain digital tools and solutions in the bases construction sector on the procurement process, the supply chain and cultural shifts.

He said: “In terms of monitoring, I think there’s less monitoring happening now than there was 20 years ago. On normal building projects, I think it’s not done or if it is done, it’s done very badly. And the main reason for that is probably the procurement process and the fragmentation of the supply chain.

“And these days you don’t often have the controlling mind or the Engineer [as a contractual role]. And the controlling mind, if there is one, isn’t a geotechnical engineer.”

O’Brien argued that consultants, contractors and clients must all step up to influence innovation.

“We need more people across the industry to be bold and to drive change. We need better alignment between commercial and technical matters. At the moment, that’s not happening.”

He added that innovation in the geotechnical field can be compared to attempting to drive a Formula One car through central London – although it has the ability to go fast, it is always stopping at traffic lights.

“What we need is a racing track,” O’Brien said. “And clients can help to create that track, which everyone can more effectively operate in. Then it’s up to the consultants and contractors to operate within this environment and for their people to perform and use the technology more collaboratively within the boundaries set by clients.”

Talby raised the importance of the government’s innovation funds, including Innovate UK and High Speed ​​2 Ltd’s innovation funds, as examples of programs that have driven real innovation in the construction and engineering sectors.

Keltbray has worked on creating the Hiper pile, which was funded through Innovate UK.

Norman said: “As part of the transforming construction challenge, £35M was available. There were over 1,000 applicants, and we were one of the successful ones, and received £500,000 of UK money grant. We matched it with £500,000 of our own. And it’s been a success story from there on in.”

He noted that working with academics and PhD students has been a game changer.

“The PhD students are sat there with time on their hands; they’re clever people with bright ideas. It’s then down to the industry to tap into that and say, ‘Oh, I can monetize this. I can make a business out of this’ – and that’s what we did.”

Norman added that although it may be easy to innovate in the digital space, it is far more difficult to innovate in the geotechnical engineering industry space.

“Innovating in the digital space is: ‘I’ve got some inefficiencies so I’m going to pay a programmer to make my business more efficient’. Whereas innovating in the industry space is: ‘I’ve got a bright idea, I’ve got some funding, I’ve now got to get the industry to buy into this, otherwise I’m not going to get a product at all ‘.”

As a final thought, O’Brien suggested that the skills shortage could in fact be beneficial.

He said it could bring people with more diverse backgrounds and new ways of thinking into the industry, and that this could drive real innovation.

“You could argue that the skill shortage actually can be a beneficial thing that will force people to think about things differently and do things differently. Because you can’t just have an army of conventionally trained engineers come along and turn the handle. So maybe that will force large employers to think differently.”

Around the table

James Codd, principle geotechnical advisor, National Highways

Stuart Norman, managing director, Keltbray Piling

Tony O’Brien, global practice leader for geotechnics, Mott MacDonald

Mark Scorer, chief geotechnical engineer, Atkins

Christian de Santos, founder and CEO, SAALG Geomechanics

Dimitrios Selemetas, technical director, AKTII

Sakthy Selvakumaran, founder and CEO, Bkwai

Tony Suckling, founder and director, A-Squared Studio

Rob Talby, geotechnical director, Mott MacDonald

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