Structural engineering: A peak into the future
07 May 2019
In this article, submitted to the Institution of Structural Engineers Kenneth Severn Award 2018, and which received a commendation, RPS' Michael Minehane asks what structural engineering practice will look like in 10-15 years’ time and how can the professional community help with preparations
Figure 3 – Interaction with design model through mixed reality6.
According to ‘The Future of Jobs 2016’ report by the World Economic Forum, we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution, with technological advancements rapidly developing in areas including 3D printing, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning(1) (Figure 1).
Our architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is experiencing a period of tremendous change, bringing with it considerable challenges and opportunities.
We truly now live in a digital world where the pace of change is ever increasing and the need to adapt to, and embrace, digital developments is daunting. Indeed, digital tools and workflows currently available were inconceivable at the beginning of this decade. Climate change and extreme weather events have never posed a greater challenge.
Environmental action plans, including the recently published 25-year environment plan by the UK government(2), set targets for us into the future in terms of sustainable development, green infrastructure, resource efficiency and reduction of pollution and waste.
An aging workforce and a forecasted skills shortage in the AEC sector mean our existing workforce need to be used to maximum effect and on-going efforts to attract interest in a career in structural engineering need to be increased.
Accordingly, the advancements of the fourth industrial revolution present remarkable opportunities to meet these challenges facing our profession.
This paper provides a speculative glimpse into structural engineering practice in 10-15 years based on current and developing trends with respect to the following areas, deemed to have the greatest potential impact:
• Building information modelling
• Blockchain technology
• Digital tools and immersive technology
• 3D printing and robotics
• Innovation in material use
• The role of the structural engineer
Building information modelling
Current industry transformations in the use of building information modelling (BIM) present remarkable opportunities for clients and engineers to seamlessly exchange information and leverage holistic, collaborative workflows grounded in 3D model-based design.
Early uses of BIM were primarily focused on building type projects, but nowadays extend to cover projects including all types of structures including bridges and civil infrastructure (Figure 2).
The UK BIM mandate in 2016 has resulted in a significant uptake in the use of BIM in the UK in a relatively short period of time. The 2017 National BIM Report highlighted that BIM adoption has reached more than 60 per cent in the UK, with a figure of 95 per cent expected by 2023.
It is therefore not surprising that roadmaps for BIM implementation have been prepared in several other countries, with mandates likely within the next five to 10 years, including Germany, Spain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Singapore, Dubai and Australia.
It is expected that in 10-15 years’ time, BIM will be mandated across the wider engineering community worldwide, collaboration will become an intrinsic way in which we all work and share information, and efficiencies will be exploited across the structural engineering and wider AEC community concerning:
• Reduced capital costs
• Reduced project delivery programme
• Reduced waste
• Improved co-ordination and clash detection
• Reliable asset information
• Improved stakeholder consultation
• Increased export of services
Blockchain technology has recently proved revolutionary in the financial sector and is the basis for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. A blockchain is a decentralised, tamper-proof digital ledger of transactions(4).
Recent studies have highlighted that blockchain can radically transform the built environment in the coming years by forming the platform that allows the internet of things to become a reality, which paves the way for a circular economy(5).
More specific applications for the AEC sector include smart contracts, supply chain management, and smart cities. Blockchain can also be applied to BIM to create truly live BIM models, enable an immutable record of changes, solve intellectual property issues and facilitate decentralised common data environments(5).
Digital tools and immersive technology
Current trends in employing coding, scripting and self-written plug-ins as analysis and design aids, in lieu of traditional spreadsheets, suggest that structural engineers will require skills in these areas to maximise the efficiencies that these tools offer.
The interaction between 3D BIM models and gaming technology has led to the development of immersive experiences through virtual, augmented and mixed realities (Figure 3, main image).
The pace of change in these innovations mean that ever increasing adoption across structural engineering projects will be realised within the next decade. Considerable benefits can be leveraged through improved design visualisation, collaboration and stakeholder consultation.
3D printing and robotics
3D printing has emerged as a radical innovation in the manufacturing industry and is already making an impression on the AEC sector. The world’s first 3D printed pedestrian bridge, comprising micro-reinforced concrete, was opened in Madrid in 2017.
Plans are also afoot to 3D print an intricate steel bridge in Amsterdam using robots (Figure 5), which demonstrates an increased freedom of form in 3D printing and robotics for construction.
Aerial drones are another form of robotic technology that readily lends itself to construction. Drones have found applications including aerial videos and remote acquisition of survey data, which is particularly useful where access using traditional survey methods is difficult or potentially unsafe.
In the future it is anticipated that drone technology will advance enough such that aerial drones can perform visual inspections and potentially aid with physical construction on site(9).
Innovation in material use
New uses for materials including fibres, composites, polymers, natural materials and even self-healing concrete (Figure 6) will present exciting opportunities for structural engineers to expand our material choice beyond the traditional options.
The second generation of the eurocodes, which will be with us in the early 2020s, will extend to cover extradosed bridges, strengthening structures with fibre reinforced polymers, steel to concrete connections, the use of fibre reinforced concrete and recycled aggregates.
New eurocodes are also in preparation for the design of membrane structures and structural glass. These developments will undeniably promote increased use of these materials and forms into the future.
The role of the structural engineer
We are fortunate to be practicing at a time of unparalleled change and exciting developments. Advances in technology, digital workflows and analysis techniques should not be viewed as a threat to our profession in terms of potentially making the structural engineer more obsolete.
Alternatively, it should be used as an opportunity to free up our time to engage more meaningfully in the most important aspects of our role, including:
• Collaborate effectively with other disciplines and stakeholders
• Provide leadership in wider project teams
• Exercise conceptual creativity and imagination
• Innovate in structural form and material use
• Thoroughly consider of the end user to arrive at tactile, elegant structures that are appealing and invite use
• Provide asset stewardship to maximise the remaining service life of our existing infrastructure
With a tendency towards shorter, pressured design programmes, digital developments come at a welcome point, enabling the maximum of our time to be expended on these most impactful facets of our contribution as structural engineers to the built environment.
How can our professional community help us prepare?
The nature and significant pace of digital developments require an urgency for adaptive action among our professional community to keep abreast of our changing work environment.
Key recommended measures for our professional community to help prepare us for the coming 10-15 years, and to drive the fourth industrial revolution for our profession, include:
1.) Promotion of open knowledge sharing. Open knowledge sharing through disseminating innovations, successes and lessons learnt across the wider structural engineering community is critical to our collective development as a profession. The promotion of an open forum requires a departure from the more common insular approach of retaining new knowledge to establish competitive advantage.
2.) Improved collaborative working. Increased adoption of BIM will naturally lead to increased collaborative working. The introduction of new guidance on collaborative business relationships(10) will also improve opportunities to partner with organisations, share knowledge, resources, costs and risks.
3.) Developing a culture of lifelong learning. In his inaugural address 2017 institution president, Ian Firth, highlighted the need for ‘whole-of-career learning and CPD’ in response to technological developments(11). It is becoming increasingly clear that simply reforming current education systems to better equip today’s students to meet future skills requirements – as worthwhile and daunting as that task is – will not ultimately address our present needs1. Accordingly, developing a culture of lifelong learning, upskilling where required, and targeted CPD will best serve our wider profession to embrace the advancements available in the era of digital structural engineering.
Author: Michael Minehane, BEng (Hons) MEng DipHE CEng MIEI MACI, senior engineer, bridges and transportation, RPS. This article, submitted to the Institution of Structural Engineers Kenneth Severn Award 2018, received a commendation. The award is the institution’s annual essay competition for young engineers, and each year, the question is set by the incoming president.
1.) World Economic Forum. (2016) ‘Future of Jobs and Skills – Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, Geneva, Switzerland, 157 pp.
2.) HM Government (UK). (2018) ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’, Defra, London, 151 pp.
3.) Fostec & Company. (2018) Industry 4.0 [Online] Available at: https://www.fostec.com/en/competences/digitalisation-strategy/industry-4-0/ (Accessed 15 January 2018)
4.) Asharaf, S. and Adarsh, S. (2017) ‘Decentralized Computing Using Blockchain Technologies and Smart Contracts: Emerging Research and Opportunities’, IGI Global, Pennsylvania, 137 pp.
5.) Arup. (2017) ‘Blockchain Technology – How the Inventions Behind Bitcoin are Enabling a Network of Trust for the Built Environment’, Arup, London, 71 pp.
6.) Engineering News Record. (2016) AECOM and Trimble Use Mixed-Reality Technology for Engineering and Construction, [Online] Available at https://www.enr.com/blogs/12-california-views/post/39681-aecom-and-trimble-use-mixed-reality-technology-for-engineering-and-construction (Accessed 28 January 2018)
7.) PSFK. (2017) World’s First 3D Printed Bridge Debuts in a Park in Spain [Online] Available at: https://www.psfk.com/2017/02/worlds-first-3d-printed-bridge-debuts-in-park-in-spain.html (Accessed 28 January 2018)
8.) MX3D. (2018) MX3D Bridge [Online] Available at: http://mx3d.com/projects/bridge/ (Accessed 28 January 2018)
9.) NBS. (2017) The four phases of industrial revolution: phase four [Online] Available at: https://www.thenbs.com/knowledge/the-four-phases-of-industrial-revolution-phase-four/ (Accessed 28 January 2018)
10.) International Standards Organisation (ISO). (2017) Collaborative business relationship management systems, ISO, Geneva, Switzerland.
11.) Firth, I. (2017) ‘President’s Inaugural Address: Going for gold in a changing world’, The Structural Engineer, 95 (2), pp. 16-24.