Digital technology shaping infrastructure

From the invention of the tunnelling shield, to the steam shovel, to more recently the advent of building information modelling or BIM, the infrastructure sector has always been disrupted by technology. Today, however, the sheer pace and breadth of technological development means the impact on infrastructure stakeholders and businesses is bigger than ever.

A range of digital trends, from cloud computing to 3D printing, to artificial intelligence (AI), to virtual reality, is converging to cause major transformation across the design, construction and operations of infrastructure.

Access to vast amounts of computing power via the cloud, the growing volume of asset data we’re generating, and emerging technologies such as AI and smart algorithms are fundamentally shifting the nature of design.

“The historic approach to infrastructure design, where the focus has been constrained by the amount of resource available to solve a design problem, is going to go away,” says Dominic Thasarathar, thought leader at software firm Autodesk, which provides tools that allow companies to respond to this disruption.

We will see a shift towards outcomes-based design, where the technology will do the heavy lifting

“Instead we will see a shift towards outcomes-based design, where the technology will do the heavy lifting, supporting exploration of thousands of permutations of design across multiple dimensions to achieve a particular outcome. The designer will be able to focus far more on the bigger questions of what social, economic or environmental outcome they’re seeking.”

Meanwhile the internet of things is beginning to disrupt the use and operations of assets. As the way we use our built environment evolves, ensuring existing assets can be kept relevant will be critical.

“Digitally lighting up our cities will unlock new ways to add value, ranging from connecting assets together to improve movement of people around a city, to dynamically repurposing a building for 24-hour use by different companies,” says Mr Thasarathar.

“Understanding how assets are performing, through the collection of large amounts of sensor data, should ensure we undertake the right amount of maintenance, not too much, not too little, and give greater insight into how much value remains in an asset.”

In construction, great potential lies in the opportunity to tap into historic project data, applying techniques such as machine-learning to improve the predictability of outcome, bringing more projects in on budget and schedule, and helping to unlock funding for projects by providing greater investor certainty.

Physical construction will change too. Trends around Industry 4.0, which is reshaping manufacturing, are already crossing over. “Digital fabrication technologies, for example 3D printing, offer intriguing possibilities,” says Mr Thasarathar. “If we think about the traditional manufacturing paradigm, complexity and uniqueness have been expensive traits. It’s been cheaper to buy a standard off-the-shelf component than a bespoke one, particularly for small production runs.

“In 3D printing, complexity and uniqueness are essentially free. You’re able to go from a design in a computer to a finished real-world object in a single touch, in a single machine, without having to retool in a growing array of materials. Most infrastructure assets are unique, many of the components are bespoke. Though it’s still early days, the potential is vast.”

The pressure is on the architecture, engineering and construction or AEC industry to cope with huge population growth in cities. Worldwide construction output in 2030 will be 85 per cent greater than it was in 2014, according to a study by Global Construction Perspectives and Oxford Economics. Much of that will be driven by infrastructure.

Fulfilling that pipeline will present new challenges in making the right decisions about what to build, how to build or whether to build, and in ensuring what’s built is resilient, adaptable and relevant to the future.

“Technology is going to have a major part to play, not just for the infrastructure, but for the individual infrastructure firm,” says Mr Thasarathar. “Embracing these new technologies is going to be as important an element of your competitive advantage as a strong balance sheet or social licence to operate. Being bold is the order of the day.”

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