For decades, we’ve seen how ‘big data’ has transformed an ever-expanding list of high-profile industries, including financial services, retail and manufacturing.
However, when it comes to widespread adoption, the road construction industry has for far too long lagged behind, often down to an over-reliance on traditional techniques and a slow uptake in embracing new technology that aids with data analysis.
To put the lack of investment in innovation into context, a recent study by the Government found that investing in the right technology, especially ‘big data’, could help solve the construction industry’s escalating productivity gap, helping to deliver £15bn savings each year on key infrastructure projects1.
Fortunately, with the advent of wearable devices, automated machinery and the Internet of Things (IoT) in recent years, more and more contractors in transport construction are slowly starting to realise the benefits and insights that ‘big data’, predictive analytics and real-time data sharing can unlock. Integral to this has been looking at ways technology can help to drive efficiencies, improve safety and ensure best practice.
At the same time, with rapidly-rising numbers of vehicles on Britain’s roads today, the Strategic Road Network (SRN) – the UK’s biggest and single most important piece of infrastructure – faces mounting pressure to significantly raise capacity by the end of the decade, as detailed in Highways England’s £11.4bn, five-year capital programme2.
For road builders, this means a greater onus to deliver the Government’s ambitious road improvement plans in the most cost-effective way possible – and data is increasingly proving the answer.
Paving the way for Smart Motorways
While it’s no secret that road construction projects, no matter the size, create a mountain of data; in the past, much of this data was unstructured and siloed – often collected on paper and filed away once a project was completed. As a result, the process of recording, tracking and analysing previous works, has been an arduous and, at times, dangerous one – that is, until now.
Given the rising prominence of data modelling systems such as Building Information Management (BIM), hopefully, the industry is in the throes of a bellwether moment in data collection – with Aggregate Industries leading the way.
To understand how data collection can optimise project delivery, let’s look at recent works on the M1, Junction 16 to 19, Highways England’s £94.1m scheme to upgrade the M1 to a Smart Motorway, which involved creating a running lane that was previously used as the hard shoulder – increasing capacity and improving journey time reliability on this vital route.
Working in collaboration with principal contractor, Costain Galliford Try Smart Motorways JV at the Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) stage, we were tasked with realigning the existing carriageway to form a new all-lane running motorway, by constructing various layers of asphalt along the scheme on the main carriageway and central reservation.
Having worked on other Highways England regions, including Area 4, 7 and 12 of the M1, we used the data collected across these projects to deliver significant improvements in health and safety, quality and output throughout the contract.
Automated data capture
In terms of health and safety, one of the biggest challenges the industry faces is making sites safe, given the myriad of hazards involved in managing people and plant interface.
One crucial way to do this was looking at how to minimise risk to employees during pavement construction by replacing the need for a human technician to carry out the highly dangerous task of data capture.
Traditionally, the road surfacing process requires at least one or two technicians with each surfacing gang working manually to gather and record data on everything from material temperatures to ride profile. During this task, technicians are not only exposed to the dangers of working in close proximity to live traffic and construction vehicles but also face a myriad of other risks including lone working and hot material interface. Consequently, the number of serious incidents, including fatalities, across the sector has risen steadily over the years.
Keen to rule out another fatality by overhauling a 30-year-old method that was no longer fit for purpose, there has been a wider industry focus on using automation in machinery. For instance, we have recently developed new state-of-the-art Automated Intelligent Testing (AIT) equipment. By fitting all pavers, rollers and survey vehicles with GPS, infrared sensors and a data recording unit, the data gathering system automatically captures high-quality data before, during and after the surfacing process. Effectively removing the need for technicians in data capture altogether, the AIT system also means that pavers and rollers can be linked together to manage the compaction process, by recording the rolling temperature and the number of passes. Ultimately, this gives an even and consistent compacted material across the whole paved area.
During its trial at M1, Junction 16 to 19, the system compared the required number of roller passes with the GPS records and the mat temperature to verify when rolling is completed, while the roller’s visual display allowed the driver to see where further rolling was required.
Meanwhile, the final element of the AIT procedure was surface texture, and Rolling Straight Edge (RSE) testing of the finished pavement, which using laser scanners and a video was completed with improved accuracy and without the need for a human technician.
In a complete industry first, the M1, Junction 16 to 19 saw data from the product paver/roller, material location and delivery including temperature, tonnage and laser data on texture and ride profile, combined to provide a comprehensive record of the laying process.
The result of this digital data-driven approach to road surfacing was a much easier and more efficient way of managing material movement and the paving operation based on real-time data. Essentially ensuring 100% accuracy of specification and enhanced smoothness of road, equally important is that it demonstrates a clear cost reduction over traditional quality control methods.
Data is king
Paramount to data collection, of course, is accuracy. Thus, when data captured from the M1 trials over a 19km stretch was measured against the traditional RSE method, it became clear the laser gives far more data than the RSE, which only records irregularities greater than 4mm. For contractors, this means better and more accurate data that can be inputted into Building Information Management (BIM) systems in variable useable PMS formats, significantly improving the management of asset data from surfacing.
In addition, this data-capture approach can also be applied to other functions such as future scheme planning, where we have created a shift tracker that records shift-by-shift work undertaken and allocating any lost time by cause.
As the Government continues to put more and more spend behind improving the UK’s road infrastructure, it is an opportune time to finally unlock the full benefits of the latest innovations that road surfacing can offer.
By investing in data-capture facilities like the AIT system, which is currently being deployed across a number of our contracts including the next phase of the M6 Toll Road, the coming years will no doubt see a greater industry reliance on data as the key to paving the way to better, safer and more efficient roads for all.