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Rob Talby: Sharing data will transform geotechnical design and construction practices

Geotechnical design and construction relies to a large extent on empirical models and “experience”; but the data bases for these methods are actually quite thin, hence reliability is often poor.

talking point rob talby crop

talking point rob talby crop

Rob Talby is project director at Mott MacDonald

 As we enter a more data rich era, there are initiatives to share and aggregate databases that could potentially transform our design and construction practice.

There are a number of on-going initiatives to create broader databases. The i3P initiative has awarded funding for Open UK: Unlocking ground investigation data, which aims to share ground investigation data across its membership. The University of Bristol has launched a project to gather pile load testing data and make it freely available, but it needs the industry to help feed it. The Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) has been developing the next generation of instrumentation/monitoring systems and gathering the data. These initiatives generate huge amounts of data which provide new insights into matters such as pile behaviour and ground-structure interaction.

Underpinning these initiatives is the UK government’s Construction 2025 strategy to reduce costs and provide faster delivery programme of which building information modelling (BIM) and digital construction is an important part. By the mid-2020s, projects will be being delivered to BIM level 3 which will be fully collaborative and aims to maximise efficiencies and value from the data. They will use a single, shared project view for data integration, which all parties can access and modify. The digital model – often referred to as the digital twin – will be retained for the lifetime of an asset to inform maintenance and upgrades. 

With the greater use of BIM, 3D models of sites are being developed to model the planned development. I was involved with the development of 3D models for the proposed Tideway East shafts to include existing assets that were created from drawings and surveys, site surfaces, interpreted geolog, and the new shafts and tunnels. The 3D ground model was created using the Leapfrog tool to improve the understanding of the likely ground conditions.

Aerial imaging and satellite monitoring is increasingly being used to obtain topographical information. This data helps clients in their decision making for both asset management, for example, planning of mitigation measures for slope instability and for new build. Data is typically collected for a project, but is increasingly being aggregated over many years and between projects. It could be used to provide an insight into geotechnical problems that have been notoriously difficult in the past, such as long-term creep of soft clays and peats.

If the benefits are clear, what are the barriers to sharing data? Many organisations have their own databases including boreholes, pile load tests etc created over many years that form their corporate knowledge to help show local experience to win and deliver work. Sharing geotechnical data into open databases requires client approval.

Newer projects are being completed in digital form to BIM level 2, with the use and storage of larger datasets becoming easier and cheaper. To achieve the Construction 2025 strategy, government funded infrastructure projects are prompting the sharing of innovations and data between projects and the supply chains, thereby potentially removing the traditional barriers to sharing data.

Relative to other industries, civil engineering has been slow to benefit from digital transformation, but there are encouraging signs that it is starting to gain traction improving the delivery of new infrastructure and the management of existing infrastructure.

There is still a long way to go though. We need to recognise that infrastructure – and geotechnics in particular – is an information based industry in which better decisions, based on better data, lead to better outcomes for our clients.

Rob Talby is project director at Mott MacDonald

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