Prof Robert Mair tells an Engineers Ireland audience why the engineer of the future needs to use ‘smart’ technology to build assets that don’t just stand and wait for renovations and maintenance, but tell us what is required - assets that live

Prof Robert Mair

Engineers can and must transform infrastructure and therefore transform lives, Professor Lord Robert Mair, the president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), told an audience of Engineers Ireland members at an event in 22 Clyde Road recently. In the bicentenary of the ICE, Prof Mair said it was vital to build on the legacy of the past 200 years: “We have 200 years of innovation behind us, innovation that came from fearlessness. And we must be fearless once more.”

He started his address by praising Dublin’s rich civil engineering heritage. And he cited William Dargan as “one of the great engineers”. He said transformative engineering projects bring their challenges “and are not without controversy” – it is something Dargan had to deal with in his day, and today’s engineers are no different, he said. He also mentioned the Shannon Scheme as a great example of transforming lives and noted that, when it was set up, it cost the equivalent of 20 per cent of Ireland’s budget.

Engineers Ireland president Dr Kieran Feighan, introducing Prof Mair, said it was “a very auspicious” year for the organisation considering it was celebrating its 200th anniversary – “being formed in 1835, we’re only slightly younger”, he said. He mentioned that the shared history of the two institutions was “extremely important”, and described how the two had shared a couple of past presidents.

Engineers Ireland president Dr Kieran Feighan

Excited by new era of ‘smart’ technology

In his speech Prof Mair elaborated on how the profession can use technology to improve infrastructure assets, transforming the industry and the societies it serves. “Throughout my career I have seen first-hand how engineers can transform lives and I am excited at the prospect of a whole new era of ‘smart’ technology,” he said.

“For me, the most exciting outcome of the advent of new technology is the opportunity to create ‘smart infrastructure’. We are presently in a digital revolution of innovation and transformation. The engineers of the future must now build smart. They should build assets that don’t just stand and wait for renovations and maintenance, but tell us what they require: assets that live.

“Historically we have built without fully understanding our creations. We did not know where exactly they would show strain, or how they would perform in detail – both during construction and over their entire lifetime. But now we are beginning to. Through the use of new tools such as fibre optic strain measurement and wireless sensor networks, we can start to build living assets and to truly understand how our infrastructure actually performs.

“But what are the implications of this technology? And what does it mean to build ‘smart’? When one has a car, one does not solely rely on MOT testing to find out its faults. While driving, a light will flicker on to say that there is a fault with the brake or the engine. Perhaps the car is overheating or oil levels are low. These warning signs allow the driver to fix problems before they cause severe damage to the vehicle, or even an accident.

What sensors in gas turbine aero engines tell Rolls-Royce engineers

“Sensors in gas turbine aero engines tell Rolls-Royce engineers exactly how the engines are performing in real time, wherever in the world they are flying. Why shouldn’t our infrastructure do the very same, and be equally smart?

“Innovative wireless sensor technologies, the Internet of Things and data analytics are vital ingredients to the future of our infrastructure. ‘Smart infrastructure’ can define the future of society.

“In this era of rapid digital transformation we must exploit the potential of Big Data. We must treat data as a resource and recognise its huge value in improving the design, development and management of our infrastructure – and of our future ‘smart’ cities.

“People will have different views about what a ‘smart’ city actually is. But ask society what factors are crucial in making a city ‘smart’, and the answers are likely to include: environment, health and wellbeing, culture, recreation, education, employment, energy, transportation and mobility: and underpinning it all, its infrastructure (both physical and digital). Our infrastructure is a crucial part of what makes society work.

Infrastructure that responds intelligently to changes in environment

“So what is ‘smart infrastructure’? For me it is the interaction between the physical and digital, resulting in infrastructure that responds intelligently to changes in its environment; with the ability to tell us how it is doing, and influence and direct its own delivery, use, and maintenance. Creating this is the new challenge for civil engineers in the modern world.

“We have come to an exciting time in engineering, where our profession has started to use this approach in the projects we build. We have started to use new sensor technologies to collect data: data that can be used to revolutionise the construction process by making it more efficient, reducing costs, and making us truly understand the infrastructure we create.

“It can also help us manage our ageing infrastructure and secure its longevity. The second Jindo Bridge in Korea was one of the first bridges in the world to be fully equipped with a wireless smart sensor network.

These sensors installed on the bridge deck, on the cables and on the towers enabled a full understanding of the detailed performance of the bridge under traffic loading, and, most importantly, under high wind loading.

Exciting use of sensor technology on Queensferry Crossing

“Another exciting use of sensor technology is on the very recently completed Queensferry Crossing, alongside the two other bridges across the Forth estuary in Scotland. This great feat of civil engineering is a 2.7km-long cable-stayed bridge, supported by a mere three slender single column towers, carrying a motorway with two general lanes of traffic in either direction.

“The bridge has been built with technology that provides real-time information on the structure, and monitors its structural health. This includes strain gauges and accelerometers, load cells, temperature sensors, displacement transducers, and automated monitoring and analysis. Engineers therefore have had a real understanding of the performance of this elegant structure during its construction – and, importantly, this will continue throughout its operating life.

“But how does this sensor technology transform lives? By giving our structures a voice, they can tell us how to look after them. Much of our infrastructure is vulnerable, and its resilience is vital to our society. We could avoid these resilience problems, by having sensors warn us of any weaknesses.

“The engineer of the future, therefore, now has the tools to innovate and transform. When speaking of the benefits of innovation in civil engineering, one need look no further than Crossrail. Crossrail is a paragon of ‘smart’ building.

Elizabeth Line map. Photo: Crossrail Ltd

Series of innovative applications of fibre optics and wireless sensors on Crossrail

“Its engineers are working with academics at the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), a team I head at Cambridge. The result has been a whole series of innovative applications of fibre optics and wireless sensors on Crossrail, the largest construction project in Europe.

“CSIC has used fibre optic sensors both in sprayed concrete tunnel linings in Liverpool Street station, and to monitor the deformation of a diaphragm walls supporting various Crossrail shafts and deep excavations. In these projects, sensors have been embedded in concrete to measure strain and temperature changes within the material at key stages in construction.

“CSIC researchers have attached fibre optic cables to a primary sprayed concrete lining, prior to a second layer of concrete being sprayed. The fibre optic cable acts as a continuous strain gauge over its entire length – and it’s very cheap.

“We now have unprecedented levels of detail on the behaviour of the concrete linings or retaining walls, and their interaction with the ground. This information not only gives us a much greater understanding of the detailed performance of infrastructure, but also gives us a wealth of information on potential savings in future designs.

“The fibre optics sensors quantified the localised stress concentrations caused by construction of cross-passages. They clearly showed that the extent of additional thicknesses of sprayed concrete for strengthening around cross passages could be reduced. This means less concrete, less excavation, less time, safer construction – and, of course, substantial cost savings.

“We can now make savings in materials and labour, refine our designs and reduce costs through more accurate modelling. No longer do we need to rely on traditional methods of asset management, which rely heavily on visual observation. Our structures can now tell us how they are performing, how we can improve future designs and when we need to maintain them during their operating life.

Power saving measures have been incorporated where possible to reduce the energy requirements of the operational railway. This includes design of lightweight energy efficient trains as well as LED lighting in stations, tunnels and trains. Photo: Crossrail Ltd

“Each underground station can contain many cross-passages. The cost savings indicated by this exercise alone will amount to millions of pounds of savings for future station tunnels such as those on Crossrail 2.

Innovative approaches to construction methods

“Crossrail has also used innovative approaches to construction methods. At Tottenham Court Road, the platforms were built on site using conventional insitu concrete technology, that is, casting concrete on site. Whereas at Liverpool Street station the platforms were built using offsite manufacture, in which key concrete components were cast in Laing O’Rourke’s factory in the midlands and assembled on site.

“Comparisons show 57 employees requiring 67,000 hours at Tottenham Court Road, versus a huge increase in productivity at Liverpool Street: 34 employees in total completing the work within 27,000 hours. Offsite manufacture will transform the way we construct infrastructure.

“It is not just London’s transport system that has stepped into the age of innovation. London’s sewage network has also started a new chapter in its design life. While [Sir Joseph] Bazalgette’s innovation and foresight created a system that stood the test of time for 150 years, by now the population of London has grown to about eight million, and the sewers have finally reached capacity.

“The response to this new challenge is the Thames Tideway project, which will work alongside the existing Victorian system. An 8m diameter tunnel, 25km long, will soon be constructed beneath the river bed all along the line of the Thames. This will be connected to a large number of new very deep shafts.

New insights into performance of shaft on Thames Tideway project

“The Thames Tideway project is also making use of the results of smart sensor technology. Fibre optics sensors were installed by CSIC in the 70m deep, 30m diameter shaft at the Abbey Mills site, one of the deepest shafts ever built in soft ground conditions. These have provided completely new insights into the performance of the shaft, particularly in relation to the forces induced in it by the ground pressures. This will lead to future designs being refined, with very significant cost savings.

Tideway, the company building London’s super sewer, has welcomed the first shipment of two more Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) in preparation for the start of tunnelling later this year

“Fibre optic sensors were also installed by CSIC in the diaphragm walls for the Crossrail Limmo Shaft. The fibre optic cables are easily attached to the reinforcement cages both in the longitudinal and transverse directions. These too provided a completely new understanding of the behaviour of deep circular shafts constructed with diaphragm walls – enabling future designs to be improved, saving time, materials and money.

“It is very straightforward to attach fibre optic cables like this to concrete reinforcement for any type of new construction. And also to existing infrastructure. CSIC has now done this for a wide range of civil engineering infrastructure: bored piles, earthworks, tunnels, buildings, bridges and sewers – the technique has been successfully tried, tested and perfected on more than 100 different sites, both in the UK and overseas, including the tunnels for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

“These are all examples of long-term thinking; of optimal efficiency; of building assets that teach us more about our profession, both by giving us real data on our infrastructure – and by encouraging collaboration between industry and academia: a recipe for innovation.

The role of the engineer of the future

“The role of the engineer of the future is not just producing more efficient infrastructure. The engineer of the future needs to identify the broader challenges of the 21st century, and to become part of their solution. Our predecessors saw poverty, high mortality rates, stagnant economies and growing populations, and proposed ways in which infrastructure could transform lives. The engineers of the future must do the same.

“The global challenges are not small. Every person across the globe deserves a home that is safe; clean water; sanitation; clean air; electricity, the means to travel; and choice. Choice to use the motorway or the train. Choice to work locally or afar. Choice to have access to education, healthcare and opportunities. This is what the engineer of the future must work to achieve for all our society.

“In order to deliver the living assets of which I have spoken, we need agile engineers: engineers who are plugged into the very latest technical developments; who collaborate with colleagues across disciplines; and are responsive to the changing needs of the public. We need to be new and fast, not old and slow.

Three key strategic themes that will transform our industry

“Three key strategic themes will transform our industry: first, DIGITAL – delivering better, more certain outcomes using digital technologies. Key to this is the [UK] government’s recently announced Digital Built Britain programme – its primary focus being building information modelling at increasing levels of sophistication.

“Second, MANUFACTURING – improving productivity, quality and safety by increasing the use of offsite manufacturing. I showed earlier a comparison of two stations being built for Crossrail, in which offsite manufacture resulted in hugely increased productivity.

“Third, PERFORMANCE – optimising through-life performance through ‘smart infrastructure’ assets involving sensor technologies and data analytics – the theme I have been emphasising. This will lead to improved and more economic designs. It will also revolutionise asset management – data generated by sensors will enable continuous monitoring of an asset throughout its life, providing information for more rational maintenance and repair strategies. This will substantially reduce infrastructure operating costs.

“Civil engineering is a fascinating and rewarding career. It has and will continue to benefit from developments in science, technology, media, and the arts.

“A good example is one of our PhD students at Cambridge, Heba Bevan. She joined us from ARM – the hugely successful semi-conductor and software design company, headquartered in Cambridge. She designed and developed a very neat little wireless sensor called the ‘Utterberry’, which can measure movement, temperature, humidity and other parameters. She has already won a large number of innovation awards.

Heba Bevan, inventor of the UtterBerry at the Eleanor Street shaft, London Borough of Tower Hamlets

Sensor that requires a very small amount of power

“The ‘Utterberry’ only requires very small amounts of power, and soon such sensors might require no power at all; since with the advent of energy harvesting, the power for the sensors will be generated by vibrations from traffic, and not by batteries.

“This new product, developed only in the past couple of years, has already been deployed extensively on Crossrail and on other projects. It can be easily deployed on existing infrastructure. It is simple but powerful, easy to install. It represents the exciting future that new technology can offer civil engineers. Such sensors will transform our understanding of infrastructure, both under construction and throughout its life.

“New technologies must be part of the future for civil engineering, examples being robotics, drones, tidal energy, new materials and 3D printing, mixed reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning – and, of course, sensors and the Internet of Things. There are many other new advances. Autonomous vehicles are likely to be a reality in the foreseeable future. Hyperloop might also be a reality.

Civil engineering simultaneously creative, exciting, cerebral and practical

“Civil engineering is a profession that is simultaneously creative, exciting, cerebral and practical. Students with a range of skills from a wide range of backgrounds should naturally be drawn to it, especially with these exciting new technologies. We need to show them just how diverse the world of civil engineering is and embrace all the latest advances in technology.

“We can no longer just build infrastructure without knowing more about its long-term performance, and its ability to be smart and modern. We need to be agile and create living assets; we need to be new and fast.

“We all need to reject the old and slow, and embrace the new and fast. If you are a designer, think about how you will routinely embed sensors into the projects you are designing – to provide the data we will need to streamline construction, understand performance and operate assets over a multi-decade lifespan.

“If you are a contractor, embrace the new technologies on site – a world of robotics, drones, off-site manufacture, sensors and data analytics will deliver much greater value to society.
If you are in government or with a client, act now to free up the supply chain to innovate and take risks. – Demand innovation and smart assets equipped with sensors, and embed this into your procurement practices. Change your procurement practices to reflect these innovations.

“If you are an academic, reach out beyond the university and the laboratory, and work with industry to ensure we all benefit from research, new technologies, and the latest thinking.
And all of you – engineers or otherwise – I ask this of you: demand more, be creative, be innovative.”

Engineers as ‘invisible superheroes’

Prof Mair concluded by emphasising that civil engineers have often been ‘invisible superheroes’ as they tackle real problems which impact people, across the world, daily. “No other career has such a positive yet unseen benefit for society and the 200th anniversary of ICE is an opportunity to showcase the vibrant, rewarding and valuable career of being a civil engineer – just as Sir Joseph Bazalgette and Thomas Telford saw two centuries ago.

“I see a great and vibrant future for our profession – for infrastructure and for the lives of every person on this planet regardless of who they are or where they were born. The challenge now is to encourage young people from all backgrounds to join us in this profession, one which has the power and the responsibility to literally change the world for the better.”

About Robert Mair

Robert Mair was appointed professor of Geotechnical Engineering at Cambridge University in 1998. He was the Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering 2011-17, and Master of Jesus College 2001-11. He was a Fellow of St John’s College 1998-2001. He is also one of the founding directors of the Geotechnical Consulting Group (GCG), an international consulting company based in London, started in 1983. He was appointed chief engineering adviser to the Laing O’Rourke Group in 2011. O'RiordanTechcivil,ICE UK,UK
Engineers can and must transform infrastructure and therefore transform lives, Professor Lord Robert Mair, the president of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), told an audience of Engineers Ireland members at an event in 22 Clyde Road recently. In the bicentenary of the ICE, Prof Mair said it was...