If consumers were required to commission all the engineering calculations necessary to build a new car from scratch, we would need considerably fewer roads! The car would take many years to design and would be considerably more expensive. Each new car, whilst based on sound engineering principles, would essentially be bespoke and untested.

Making Trade-offs 

 As consumers we seek data to inform our decision about which car to purchase – for example fuel economy, acceleration, and capacity. We expect that we can compare the performance of different models prior to purchase using verified data and benchmarks. Inevitably we must make strategic trade-offs which force us to think about what is most important to us. The cheaper model may save money in the short-term, but fuel economy may end up costing more than a more expensive but more efficient option during the lifetime of ownership. Equally a more expensive model may look attractive on first inspection, but may come with features we do not require, or may include parts which are more expensive to maintain or replace in the future. 

What if we applied the principles of manufacturing to roads, bridges, or indeed any infrastructure development? What if clients could compare options using benchmark data based on real world performance, making strategic trade-offs between different options based on their priorities? Such an approach would allow a better balance to be made of the needs and priorities of customers and stakeholders in early modelling and decision-making processes.  

Adopting Best Practices from Manufacturing

What if infrastructure was created from configurable modules, manufactured off-site, and assembled quickly and safely, reducing disruption to road users almost to zero through modern construction methods such as robotics? What if construction time could be reduced by 50% or more through coordinated on-site assembly that has been rehearsed to perfection using a digital model that perfectly reflects the asset in every aspect of its design and construction – increasingly described as being a ‘digital twin’?

Benefits extend beyond cost and time. Highway construction and maintenance is a hazardous activity for construction workers and road users alike. Considerable efforts have been made to manage hazards and keep workers safe, but it is recognised that the safest approach would be to fully separate construction workers from the operational highway itself. The use of offsite manufacturing, and the eventual adoption of robotised on-site assembly, will enable this aim to be fully realised.

Making it Happen

The next industrial revolution will require manufacturing approaches to be applied to the way we design and construct infrastructure. Bespoke projects will always have their place – but modern industrial methods mean that design quality can be maintained whilst adopting industrial production methods. At the heart of this is a shift from customisation to configuration, applying the principles of product platforms common in other sectors to infrastructure projects. This is no small task, and will require new design practices, reconfiguration of the supplier ecosystem including new skills in logistics and production processes, investment in training, and technology.

The digital revolution is needed to enable the potential productivity gains of the manufacturing model to be realised. BIM (or digital engineering) was an important first stage in digitisation, moving from paper-based analogue information management towards a digital world. A key aspect of BIM is unlocking project and asset information (currently locked in formats like PDFs and spreadsheets), into data tables that can be readily recognised, used and analysed by software. Further progress is needed in how we collect information across the whole life of the asset.  This will include robust benchmarking, the creation of data views across asset portfolios or within a geographic area, the integration of BIM and the use of predictive analytics and machine learning to automate data analysis to generate new insights and validate outcomes.

 Industry Collaboration is the Key

Whilst digital technology is the enabler, achieving such a bold vision will require industry-wide collaboration. In a future article we will explore a number of industry-level organisations and strategies which are beginning to draw together the threads of opportunity.  We will look at the key challenges and barriers that will need to be overcome for the potential benefits of digital transformation in the transport infrastructure sector to be fully realised.