Industry

30 SEP 2019

MEET THE INFRASTRUCTURE GAME CHANGERS

We spoke to four up and coming construction professionals working at Atkins who are using tomorrow’s technology to change the way the industry works today.

Solving the right problem in the right way is a simple concept that’s much easier said than done. We talked to a new generation of engineers at Atkins who are using big data, lean methodologies and agile practices to find new solutions to old problems. 

Jack Metcalfe, Digital Strategy and Innovation Consultant

How do you identify problems? 

“Often in engineering we quickly get stuck in rabbit holes, focussing on specific technicalities while forgetting to start by validating critical assumptions. We’re not just finding out what our customers’ problems and frustrations are, but why they have them in the first place. This helps us to solve the right problems in the right way”. 

What do you think is driving change? 

“I have seen how digital has started to blur boundaries between disciplines, compelled us to look at problems in new ways and shifted the focus from traditional waterfall methods to embracing an agile philosophy. We need to get better at stepping into our customer’s shoes, taking a more experimental approach to what we do”.

You worked on a project testing the hypothesis that sharing data would result in cost benefits for delivering capital infrastructure in London. Tell us about it. 

“What we found was astounding.  We took a ‘think big, start small’ approach so we could understand at a micro level which data would deliver the most value. This resulted in several build, measure and learn cycles to develop a simple tool. We quickly discovered that by overlaying data and facilitating better stakeholder conversations, we could create significant financial efficiencies and avoid thousands of days of disruption on our road networks”.

Matthew Jefferies, Digital Specialist 

Can you describe a time you’ve used a digital solution to solve a problem? 

“Ageing reporting methods that were clunky, time consuming and inconsistent meant we had a problem visualising performance on some projects, which could lead to poor and uniformed decision making. Our digital team developed some simple reports through a live platform, using data from source to provide a dynamic output. The project manager could then make real time decisions from accurate data”.  

How do new approaches offer value? 

“I take the viewpoint that if you ever do the same thing more than once, there is scope for automation, though the time investment of making it happen against the benefits of having automation in place obviously have to be considered. There are many enabling tools, from Microsoft Flow for simple workflows to something like Dynamo for more complex levels of automation. As well as the obvious time savings automation brings, it’s also a really clear way of showing the benefits of digital adoption - which can be useful for starting the conversation with those who are not naturally digital or sceptical of new ways of working”. 

What do you think is key to successful transformation? 

“Communication. Whether within a team, a business or a whole industry, if we don’t communicate about our success stories, our journeys through change and our advancements - or equally, the pains and problems we’re facing - then we won’t improve. To really embrace the revolution, there have to be enough leaders who are open about what can be achieved”. 

Alin Rohnean, Software Developer

What’s been your experience of how digital solves problems?

“Our approach to solving problems has subtle differences to a typical software development provider. We blend modern software development, strong engineering knowledge and innovative vision to ensure that whatever software solutions we provide are technically rigorous, flexible, future-proofed and add real value. We work closely with end-users to make sure that what we produce is fully aligned with their processes and is robust, efficient, intuitive and easy to use. For us, it doesn’t matter how clever a software is, if people don’t want to use it, it’s not good enough”.

Have you seen diversity of thinking lead to any particular outcomes?

“Yes, an example is when we were developing software to automate a laborious process for structural analysis for offshore wind. The team had different backgrounds, and we were able to quickly use the wide expertise to develop a solution similar to some in other industries. The result was a reduction of approximately 90 minutes per analysis case, and when nearly a thousand cases have to be run several times, it provided significant advantage. There were also further benefits in consistency and quality assurance”. 

How varied is your role within the context of an engineering company? 

“Our software team works on a variety of projects, both internal and external, ranging from integrity and risk assessment and management, to project management, finance and billing. These require suitable domain knowledge combined with modern software to provide innovative solutions. We work across the full lifecycle from idea generation and requirements gathering to design, implementation and testing, followed by deployment, support and maintenance”.

Anne Harding, Assistant Environmental Engineer 

How do you think people play a role in advancing the digital revolution? 

“We’re a business based around people and human interaction can’t be substituted for technology. In my experience, most people are in support of change and are driven to embrace it. However, as with most things, I believe the bottom line prevents us from achieving this. Development can be an expensive up-front cost, as can training people in the relevant skills, with no guarantee that the end product will do exactly what you set out to achieve”. 

How do you use your background to approach identifying and solving problems?

“I would love to say something like ‘I think outside the box’, but I think like most people, I approach each problem using my experience and skills. I’ve been using programmes like Python that I learned studying geophysical sciences at university to develop a GIS-based assessment tool for automatically identifying routes for linear infrastructure (e.g. pipelines). I’ve seen that digital automation reduces the potential for human error, offers repeatability and can be manipulated and re-used on other projects. I think it goes to show that the title of your degree doesn’t dictate the direction your career takes, or how you use the skills learnt to solve problems in the real world”. 

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