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Structural engineering: A peek into the future

Structural engineering has gone through a huge number of changes and the rate of which these changes occur are increasing. In this article Michael Minehane asks what structural engineering practice will look like in 1015 years’ time and how can the professional community help with preparations.

30 October 2020 | 3 min read
Michael Minehane
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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. 

Our architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is experiencing a period of tremendous change, bringing with it considerable challenges and opportunities.

Timeline of the first, second, third and fourth Industrial Revolutions, 1800s to today

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 UK government's 25-year environment plan, and the Irish government's Climate Action Plan, 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.

Looking forward to the next 1015 years, we can see, based on current and developing trends that the following areas will deliver 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.

M8 Raith Interchange BIM Model in Scotland
BIM model of Raith underpass, Scotland (Source: RPS Group & Ferrovial Lagan JV)

The UK BIM mandate in 2016 and the implamentation of ISO 19650 has resulted in a significant uptake in the use of BIM 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.

Aerial photograph of Raith Underpass in Scotland
Aerial photograph of Raith Underpass, Scotland (Source: RPS Group & Ferrovial Lagan JV)

It is expected that in 1015 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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

3d printed bridge
World's first 3D printed pedestrian bridge in Madrid, Spain

Plans are also afoot to 3D print an intricate steel bridge in Amsterdam using robots, 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.

self healing of concrete cracking using live bacteria
Self-healing of concrete cracking using live bacteria (Source: Delft University).

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 1015 years, and to drive the fourth industrial revolution for our profession, include:

  • 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.
  • Improved collaborative working. Increased adoption of BIM will naturally lead to increased collaborative working. The introduction of new guidance on collaborative business relationships will also improve opportunities to partner with organisations, share knowledge, resources, costs and risks.
  • 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.
  • 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 needs. 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.