Atkins’ senior product manager Steven Anderson and new director of digital disruption for the MENA region, Marc Durand, explain the evolution of engineering design from a digital to a virtual reality model
Over the last two decades, there have been many digital transformation initiatives in the Middle East to drive the region forward as part of the smart agenda. Numerous implementations – e-commerce platforms, Internet of Things (IoT) systems, data analytics, 3D printing, robotics and artificial intelligence applications – have been developed and trialled as part of the quest to become a digitally advanced region.
The rise of disruptive digital technologies has also become prominent in the architecture, engineering and construction industries. With buildings becoming increasingly complex in design and execution, traditional approaches are no longer suitable. Radical new innovations are required, and Atkins, one of the world’s most respected design and engineering and project management consultancies, is at the forefront of this movement.
Adoption of BIM
As a leader in the use and integration of technology, Atkins has been helping to shape the adoption of building information modelling (BIM) – the digital representation of the physical and functional characteristics of a building – since its inception. The team has been strategically proactive in leading the exploitation of BIM to implement better integrated design solutions for clients’ projects since recognising long ago that BIM represents the future for the industry.
When the design and build contractors consortium appointed Atkins in 2006 to deliver the multi-disciplinary detail design for the civil works elements on the Dubai Metro project, BIM systems were not commonly used in mainstream civil engineering, despite their roots going back to 1963.
Using Revit 2008, Steven Anderson, a product manager at Atkins, led a small team to drive BIM implementation and develop multi-discipline design models to demonstrate buildability and coordination on the Green Line section of the project.
Commenting on the process, Steven says: “We learned new skills and used technology which allowed us to resolve design problems within the models rather than on-site. In 2008, BIM was mostly undercover, as we were also learning how to use and best implement the technology, solving design challenges and building models virtually before building them. This also gave the client and the construction teams an understanding of how the stations and other facilities would be put together, with all the internal systems fully integrated.”
This visionary project was the catalyst for the planning and implementation of new metro networks across the GCC. BIM has redefined project delivery in the design and engineering industry, changing everything from the design workflow and the software used by engineers, to the design skills required and the visualisation of the project with clients.
When implementing BIM, Atkins focused on four areas: policy, process, people and technology. Atkins is involved in more than 50 projects around the world where BIM is being successfully applied to deliver projects more efficiently and effectively than traditional methods would have allowed.
These projects are primarily delivered through a design-build process. With this approach, the use of BIM has proven invaluable to the project team, beginning with the design phase and continuing through planning to a project‘s construction, commissioning and operation.
In 2011, Atkins was appointed lead designer for King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, one of the largest and most complex airport projects in the world. This was the first major multi-disciplinary project where BIM was embraced across the Atkins group, and information management started to gain traction. At this stage, the maturity of BIM was mainly driven by the requirement to coordinate design and provide material quantities for the site construction teams.
In recognition of the strength of Atkins’ growing design and BIM capability in the region, it was named Consultant of the Year at the 2016 MEP Middle East Awards.
Massive shift to VR and AR
As a result of these early initiatives, Marc Durand, director of digital disruption for MENA, believes Atkins is at the forefront of innovation and drives digital transformation in the construction industry. Atkins uses digital tools to drive new and innovative ways of working with clients, by mixing software and technology into product delivery.
An example of this is MR (mixed reality) technology, which offers the possibility to bring members from anywhere into a project eco-system, linking all the visualisations with engineering innovations.
Using virtual reality (VR) to engage stakeholders in the design helps ensure clear, comprehensive understanding between the client, the design intent and contractor. In the past, projects in the Middle East have required numerous design changes as a result of problems understanding 2D drawings. Immersive environments help demystify the understanding of data. Not everyone can do coding or manage databases, but everyone can quickly learn to navigate a virtual model and access data through it.
Marc adds: “Atkins will continue to put a lot of resources into developing a whole line of products, to drive further innovation within the organisation.”
The impact of future digital innovation
With this in mind, as clients become more educated, technology will enable more co-creation with clients on projects. With the capabilities of clients growing, there will also be more rapid growth and adoption of these digital tools. There will be more integration and thirst for access to information, even before a project has started.
The latest computer technology will allow real-time rendering with better graphics and displays, to enable better engagement with clients. This will also make it easier to immerse clients in the design ecosystem to make sure they fully understand the design intent. It will enable the industry to ultimately design with clients in real time, with real-time output, by placing clients into a simulation before buildings are built. Clients are moving into faster understanding, acceptance and decision-making, including deep dives into topics, without limiting the number of design possibilities.
In the past, Atkins research and development teams have made a number of other important contributions to both the company legacy and the wider industry. Working with early computer technology in the 1950s, Atkins developed stress analysis tools, project planning programmes and one of the first optimised structural computer-aided design packages in the industry, eventually supporting its teams in putting computers to work across the business.
Development in computer services also helped to quickly design things that were cheaper – but still needed the engineer to fit all the answers together. Computers were so cutting-edge that most of the time was used to test exactly what could be done to benefit the business.
Today, this legacy of innovation remains in the Atkins culture, enabling teams to meet the technical challenges of clients’ most complex infrastructure projects.