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A KEANE EYE: Ranking innovation

A recent encounter regarding another project raised the topic of innovation again, in trying to identify some of the major innovations that have changed project and sustainability outcomes in the built environment. I won’t try to be so high-end, but it’s interesting to stop and think about what some of the big changes have been, and what they should be. In civil construction it’s hard to go past 3D guidance and control systems using GPS and laser as a relatively recent innovation with huge benefits. This technology has improved the accuracy and quality of work – which it is supposed to – but it’s also changed the dynamics of jobs because work doesn’t stop while a surveyor sets out new pegs. The operator has control over his work because he can see it on his screen. Most people will admit to a 30% improvement in efficiency when using this technology on the right job – I suspect that figure is very conservative in many instances. If you do it once and do it right, as this technology assists you to do, then you save on time, fuel, maintenance, etc. The quality of work is not to be sneezed at, either. When you get even thicknesses of base layers and low ride counts on the surface of road assets that translates to reduced maintenance costs and a longer life before reconstruction. Trenchless technology is another area where huge advances have been made in the modern era. From an efficiency and environmental-impact point of view, digging just the hole for a service – rather than digging down to where you want the hole, and then replacing everything that isn’t meant to be a hole – minimises ground disturbance to the point where there is virtually no sign on the surface that the work has been done. In the urban environment this is a very impressive achievement when that surface can be a road, rail line, major service pipe, etc. However, an area that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the technology for upgrading and remediating underground assets with minimal surface disturbance. It’s a sneaky secret – many of the pipes in the longer established parts of the country are long past their design life, and it is only through technologies such as pipe bursting to upsize pipes as required, and various lining technologies, that these assets are being kept operational. As a relatively young field, this technology is still advancing rapidly. While there are still many situations where it is cheaper and faster to open trench and backfill, the economics of trenchless technology will continue to improve. We could talk about the intelligence of modern engines and their integration with hydraulic systems, and that’s certainly been a significant advance of the current generation, but one could argue that it’s icing a cake that’s already been baked. But if you broadened the scope to look at onboard intelligence in machines – with sensors of various types, information processing capacity and programming to analyse and react to the data being collected faster and more consistently than the best operator, then you would have a good point. There can be safety benefits (load moment indicators, etc), performance benefits (select economy or power mode and have a machine perform totally differently), longevity benefits (telling you of a potential problem before you see a cloud of smoke) – these days you can have a sensor for just about anything. I’d be really interested in your thoughts – what do you think were the greatest advances of the last generation, and where do you see major improvements in the future?

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