Andrew Hobbs reports exclusively from our Internet of Manufacturing conference in London, on how Dr Graham Herries, director of Digital Technologies at construction giant Laing O’Rourke, is transforming the company’s design, manufacturing, supply chain, and construction operations, via digital twin technologies.
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The construction industry has historically lagged behind others in its approach to digital transformation. However, with 70 percent of Laing O’Rourke’s construction now happening off-site as part of its design for manufacture and assembly (DFMA) strategy, the company has recognised the opportunity to digitise these processes.
This approach is spearheaded by the use of digital twin technology – the building of digital simulations of physical assets, through real-time data feeds and/or 3D modelling techniques.
Laing O’Rourke is using Optimised, the industrial modelling and simulation platform pioneered by Dr Herries. The technology can help measure critical data feeds – using information from IoT sensors – simulate production and other processes based on this data, and then refine estimates and optimise operations accordingly.
For Laing O’Rourke, digital twin use-cases include construction phasing, factory planning, bottleneck resolution, logistics, route planning, and simulating the built environment itself, taking the technology beyond the factory-based applications where it is usually deployed.
From factory floor to construction site
However, with the majority of the construction process happening within its factories, the company is also using digital twins to improve the layout and machine configurations of its facilities, employing local data collection in the Azure cloud, along with edge processing.
The company has taken the digital twin concept further by using the technology to optimise the mix of automated and manual tasks carried out in its factories, identifying bottlenecks, and determining which areas would be aided by automation – and where robotic processes would merely add cost with no gain.
Laing O’Rourke’s ‘just in time’ approach within its supply chain and logistics operations also benefits from digital twins by being more efficient, while retaining the ability to adapt to weather conditions and other external disruptions identified within the live data feeds.
Large-scale construction projects are subject to energy capacity limitations on site, meaning that there’s a constant battle to remain within the restrictions of the tariff. The use of digital twins has enabled Herries and his team to alter production profiles to limit and optimise the use of high-energy machinery.
Communicating the architect’s vision with VR
At the customer end of the operation, digital mock-ups of the buildings the company is constructing model all aspects of the process – from construction considerations to environmental and efficiency concerns.
For the early design stages of a project, Laing O’Rourke has also turned to virtual reality (VR) to allow both clients and architects to more fully visualise the building, helping them understand the space and form, and identify any problems with the design.
Likewise, augmented reality (AR) has helped make training and safety briefings more interactive, said Herries.
All aboard the digital twin
Thanks to an EU Horizon 2020 Factory of the Future funding award, Laing O’Rourke is bringing together expertise from multiple domains into a consortium that is advancing the use of the digital twin in two factory demonstrators and a rail logistics demonstrator, in a project named Optimised.
Dr Herries is using the Optimised platform to rework the operations of the West Coast Mainline, one of the UK’s busiest and most important rail corridors, currently operating as Virgin West Coast.
Herries said that Laing O’Rourke’s digital twin of the network is able to model the movement of its trains, and coordinate when they need to return to depot for maintenance.
With every train needing to be serviced at least every 20,000 miles, it’s a complex logistical challenge to ensure that each one finishes where it needs to each day, is serviced regularly, corrective works are performed – and, critically for passengers, keeps running to the network’s timetable.
Carried out by a human being, this scheduling work typically takes three hours a day and can only be used to plan one day ahead. This tends to result in trains being over-serviced to ensure mileage limits are not exceeded, explained Herries.
By modelling the network as a digital twin and using a heuristic maintenance scheduling algorithm, Herries said that the process can be reduced to 19 seconds in Microsoft Azure –though, at present, it then undergoes 30 mins of precautionary human validation.
Using digital twins, it’s possible to forward-plan for up to 23 days, significantly reducing over-maintenance, said Herries. Rolling stock usage is also balanced across the fleet to ensure that certain trains aren’t subjected to more journeys than others.
Herries’ presentation emphasised that, often, it not until someone is shown a digital twin and told “look, this is what this technology can do” that they realise how their own industry can tap into its potential.
Yet digital twins and other Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) innovations, aren’t just for static asset and plant usage; digital transformation of this kind often works best when it’s applied across the board, linking disparate enterprise systems, identifying friction points, and optimising all aspects of the product and customer journey.