Moving into a world of virtual and augmented reality

Whether monitoring an existing asset or constructing a new one, today’s engineers need access to better, more reliable information – and it must be in real time. With fast advancing technology making monitoring simpler and more cost effective, building this into works is now a “must have” rather than a “nice to have”.

Mabey Hire has a rich history in using digital technology to design products, smooth out processes and remain at the forefront of industry innovation. This was most recently showcased when it became one of the first temporary works specialists to gain BIM Level 2 accreditation for Design and Construction.

Awarded by the British Standards Institution, the accreditation signifies a crucial step for Mabey Hire - not just as a certificate and a doffing of caps, but as a symbol of the company's ongoing work to digitise everyday processes.

It has changed the entire way the business operates, from engaging with clients and refining ways of working, to making sure all projects are delivered as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible.

New Civil Engineer spoke to Stephen Hubbard, Mabey Hire's chief engineer, and Paul McLaughlin, digital engineering technician, about the company's digital heritage, its ongoing work in shifting perceptions, and what they think the future of digital engineering holds as we move into a world of virtual and augmented reality.

Mabey Hire isn't a newcomer to the digital engineering space. In fact, as a one-stop shop for design and build temporary works, it designs, fabricates and installs all its equipment using digital products.

"Digital technology has had an increasing influence over the last three to four years." says McLaughlin. "Now that we're BIM Level 2 accredited, we are investing in more technology for the business and spending more time upskilling individuals. This will ensure we have the right expertise and tools in place to thrive in the building information modelling (BIM) environment. We see all this increasing over the next two to three years, bringing more BIM software users into the business.

"And our progression in BIM isn't limited to the UK. Across the Atlantic, our US business has been working with us in implementing 3D modelling and BIM to nudge ahead of their competitors. They've been using BIM models for information, visualisation and project delivery, so it's a group-wide effort."

Mabey Hire's international reach also includes providing temporary bridges, groundworks, propping and monitoring, with operations in the US and Australia.

"We're a broad company and work across a lot of sectors. For us, it's all about offering a complete service for our clients."

Boasting the benefits of BIM

Traditionally, BIM might have seemed the preserve of large building works and public-sector projects. Its benefits are easy to see in theory but, in financial terms, it can be less clear cut. Therefore, much of the industry is yet to pick up the BIM baton in full and in earnest. But this is something that's changing, Mabey Hire believes.

"Clients are beginning to realise there is a lot of value in BIM. That's why over the last four years, we've been championing it. It's not just about having pretty pictures or 3D models, but about using data to provide a fuller, more comprehensive picture of how structures are behaving and delivering valuable insights into the lifecycle of future infrastructure and construction projects," comments McLaughlin.

BIM is now a best practice requirement for most forward-thinking projects. High Speed 2 (HS2) for instance, has mandated its use, and Mabey Hire will be supporting HS2 projects where BIM will be in place.

"More companies are looking at the construction phase when kick-starting a project to drive efficiencies," adds McLaughlin. "They're looking at health and safety, virtual builds and virtual sequences, all of which will enable them to carry out their works more quickly, safely and efficiently."

A recent project where Mabey Hire has implemented BIM successfully is the huge basement propping scheme for the Westgate Centre development in Oxford. In this case, a family of products within its Revit software was plugged directly into a BIM model.

"Working on this project allowed us to develop new processes internally, whilst collaborating with the client in a Common Data Environment and running clash avoidance checks. The project was a huge development in our capabilities to work on BIM projects and helped us to pass the Level 2 accreditation process," says Hubbard.

Of course, leading the way in digital monitoring doesn’t come without its challenges – Mabey Hire says it’s often hard to convince clients of how on board with the latest technology they really are.

“One of the biggest challenges we have as a business is making sure our clients know what we do. Quite often we say, ‘Seeing as this is a BIM project, do you want us to deliver using BIM?’ And they’re often surprised. So that’s one of the biggest challenges – changing perceptions,” he added.

And these perceptions need to change fast, especially as Mabey Hire is about to fully integrate BIM into its contract teams and subcontract teams, providing full courses and training.

McLaughlin says: “We have invested a huge amount of time into finding the right external training and knowledge. Generally, it is not tailored to temporary works suppliers so longer-term we will establish our own internal training programme.

“BIM is only valuable if it is responsive, reliable, accurate and easy to interpret, and the collection and conditioning of data can be complex. Therefore, it is important to have the specific specialist skills in place to understand the requirement and generate the right information.”

The future of digital engineering

While there are challenges, innovation in digital engineering continues apace. Mabey Hire’s digital team is already looking ahead to a future beyond BIM, incorporating technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

According to Hubbard: “VR is an extremely exciting capability, both in terms of training through our training academy, and in early client engagement. Through VR, our clients can already take a virtual tour through our work and see how it looks on the site.

“That’s where we are currently, but we’re also looking at ways in which AR can benefit our clients in the future. AR provides some interesting scenarios for a future work site, especially in the context of monitoring.

“If, for example, a client provides a BIM model of a structure, we can link our monitoring equipment into the software. Where the future of AR is going, you could walk around a site and your monitoring data will appear on the actual structures. That’s how we envision connecting our business to these innovative technologies.”

The working culture has changed at Mabey Hire, with BIM capabilities improving communications around the office and placing more emphasis on the importance of design, recruiting digital skills and best practice strategies.

McLaughlin concludes: “The demand for more visual experiences is something we see across our business and, with more customer adoption across the industry, the capabilities of digital engineering will no doubt go from strength to strength.

“With the BIM Level 2 accreditation under our belt, it’s a hugely exciting time for both our current and future employees, and we look forward to leading more BIM-enabled projects in the future.”

This story was originally featured in New Civil Engineer August 2017.

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