With the accelerated pace of change and disruption in technology, engineers of the future will face a critical challenge to lead, shape, plan and integrate built environment solutions that allow people to lead safe and rewarding lives. Aaron Foong (AF)—a director of KTP Consultants Pte Ltd—shares his insights on the impact of technology on the architecture, construction, and engineering (ACE) industries, and how local engineers in particular need to keep themselves updated on the latest technology to solve future challenges.
Engineers working in the built environment sector have seen emerging digital technologies promote tremendous change, impacting all aspects of work from design and procurement to construction and asset management. New applications and tools are emerging, driven by digitalisation of information and technological innovation. In the old-world view, technology was an outcome of engineering. Today, we are riding the reverse wave, with technology now a tool assisting engineering processes.
The economy in which engineers work is influenced by the global marketplace for engineering services. There is a growing demand for interdisciplinary and system-based approaches and an increasingly diverse talent pool. Engineers must be continuously challenged to anticipate future needs, find and deliver cost-effective, resilient and practical engineering designs. This will require team players with effective communication skills and an understanding of the complex issues of the global market and social contexts in which they operate.
Experience, innovation and the ability to cross-fertilise ideas will enable the engineering community to add value through its services. The context of a great design is increasingly viewed from its holistic qualities, which may include fitness for purpose, safe design, energy efficiency, flexibility of future reuse or the way that infrastructure complements its surroundings over the long term. As our carbon footprint increases, incorporating life cycle thinking into all engineering designs will become the norm. Hence, engineers will continue to play a pivotal and leadership role in shaping, planning, generating and integrating solutions and ideas to meet growing challenges and seize future opportunities globally and in the local context.
How are local engineers embracing technological changes?
AF: Technological changes have been the constant in our quest to provide a better living environment for everyone. Surbana Jurong is at the forefront of these changes and has been leveraging cutting-edge technologies to provide services and solutions that are higher in quality and more cost-effective. For example, we were among the first to use the Building Information Modelling (BIM) system for urban planning and design, and drones for land survey.
Before we adopt the latest technology, one important question we should ask is what type of technology is practical for the specific circumstance. We need to discern the essential ones from those that are driven by lobbied agendas. Digital transformation has quadrupled our throughput, if we measure our built environment by the speed of projects being foot printed. In the past decade, advancements in information communications and digital technologies have led to tremendous changes in how the engineering profession works, and I think we have been embracing and responding well to these changes. The concern is not so much about how fast we keep up with technological changes, but rather our ability to understand their limitations, and to master the values that we can derive from the 3D and 4D technological platforms that we work off today.
What are some of the current and future challenges faced by local engineers and how can they be overcome?
AF: In the built environment, engineering practices will continue to be challenged and influenced by factors on the ground, such as the availability of local labour supply and high-tech equipment. In today’s globalised world, the advent of a new trend in one industry can inspire another industry to embrace that same trend. As consumers’ expectations rise, the construction industry is also faced with the pressure to develop or adopt new trends to keep up with the times.
From the macro perspective, automation will continue to be transformative. In fact, automation is already dubbed the incoming Industrial Revolution. One example of automation is 3D digital printing, which is disrupting the manufacturing industry. How will 3D printing impact the construction industry in future? It is possible that as technology advances, 3D printing could one day be used for precast construction. When that happens, engineers will be challenged to develop new codes and standards for automated production.
However, new technology can also be applied on traditional material. Take the case of reinforced concrete for example. It is a basic but extremely versatile building material that has been used successfully for decades in construction projects ranging from long-span bridges to super high-rises. Will reinforced concrete be eventually replaced by a revolutionary material that is more sustainable and offers more benefits? In my opinion, our challenge is not the search for alternative materials but rather, how to produce what we already know best in a more sustainable and productive manner. For instance, we can develop technology to automate the production of bespoke 3D free-form structures that are more geometrically efficient to overcome the current stock driven by commercial standardisation. In the local context, the progress will depend largely on the stakeholders, including the outlook of the professional bodies, local regulatory, labour supply, risk management, contractual clarity and commercial play.
In addition, due to depleting natural resources as a result of the increasing demands of rapid urbanisation, engineers are constantly challenged to look at ways to build more effectively and with minimal wastage.
How can local engineers play a leadership role in society and seize current and future opportunities in Singapore?
AF: Engineers should keep an open mind to explore and have a genuine interest in providing holistic solutions to the day-to-day challenges they face. Innovation is a natural by-product in this process. In Singapore, the push for BIM, Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) technologies and large-scale sustainable construction by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) will continue to propel us to be at the forefront of engineering our built environment. Leadership, sensibility and the courage to change the way we work by leveraging digital transformation will continue to introduce incremental improvements to the way we design and operate in the life cycle of our engineering products as markets continue to develop. We will continue to do our best in engineering a more liveable and future-proofed built environment. Engineering has contributed enormously to the quality of life we enjoy today, and the opportunities for the future are likely to be even greater as we pursue collaborations with multidisciplinary teams of experts across various fields.
Could you please provide case studies in the local context, such as where and how applications like VDC are applied?
AF: VDC is the management of integrated digital models, key people, process, policies and technologies that enables design-construction projects to transform into high-performance digital construction operations in real-time environment for improved productivity. It supports large team workflows to improve project understanding and enable more predictable outcomes. Surbana Jurong is implementing VDC methodology extensively from design to construction stage, be it for private or government projects. Our goal is to ensure a productive way to coordinate and collaborate using BIM and benefit from minimal reworks through early detection of potential issues.
One case study we can share is the Learning Hub at Nanyang Technological University, a project that won our team the Platinum Award at the BCA BIM Awards 2017. The implementation of VDC in this project included coordinated design and construction models, whereby BIM greatly enhanced the collaborative process and workflow in terms of communication and information exchange. During the design and construction stages, interactive projectors and boards were used for collaboration and the models were shared in a cloud-based collaboration platform for easy coordination. The efficiency in design review allowed our team members to understand critical areas and come up with the best solution. It also enabled quick parametric design options via BIM 3D models to optimise the design, constructability, material selection and cost savings.
Using BIM environmental simulation, we conducted a solar, wind and energy analysis and incorporated the recommended calculations into the design of the hub. Other aspects included progressive cost monitoring, tender documentation and code compliance checks. BIM 4D construction simulation was used to visualise and monitor the construction programme, and to identify and evaluate alternative solutions. Highly detailed BIM digital mock-ups were done for more precise representation of actual built conditions. These led to faster results compared to traditional mock-ups and reduced abortive works.
We also used virtual reality lenses to navigate and understand how the project design looks like. This was then validated when comparing the virtual design against the actual design intent. Virtual Planning adoption for the Contiguous Bored Pile (CBP) retaining walls with ground anchors were modelled with site topography model to understand the site constraints, and to ensure construction methodologies are done safely. The construction team utilised BIM to review actual site conditions using their mobile devices. In summary, the VDC process has enabled the project to achieve a higher level of productivity in terms of RFI latency, man-hour savings and coordination work.
Er Aaron Foong is a director of Civil and Structural Engineering at KTP Consultants Pte Ltd—a member of Surbana Jurong. As a Chartered Structural Engineer, Aaron’s technical leadership and hands-on multidisciplinary engineering approach has seen the successful completion of a wide range of building typologies and infrastructure project developments in the region. In Singapore, he had completed the structural engineering design and construction supervision of recent award-winning public and private developments including the Metropolis, National University of Singapore (NUS) AS8, The Scotts Tower (TST), Sentosa Family Entertainment Centre and CT Hub. In 2015, he was conferred the coveted Young Structural Engineer of the Year Award by the Association of Consulting Engineers Singapore (ACES), which celebrates substantial and sustained contribution to the structural engineering profession with excellent work that demonstrates high-quality design and engineering abilities. To date, he is honoured to have received several Design and Engineering Safety Excellence Awards (DESEA) from BCA as the Qualified Person for his highly innovative and safety-driven approach in optimising engineering design and construction methodologies.