State of the industry

Innovation is the key driver to unlocking potential in the bridges and tunnels sector, says Will Reddaway

Steady economic growth since 2012 in the UK has meant more freight, rail passengers and road users and, consequently, greater wear and tear of public infrastructure.

To continue to rise to the challenge of providing a fit for purpose transport network that keeps trains, vehicles and people moving, professionals in the bridge and tunnel industry will have to develop innovative solutions that are quicker, safer and more reliable. Within the sector a growth of 4.3 per cent per annum is forecast over the next five years, bringing plenty of opportunity for innovative engineers, backed by brave and supportive companies, to make their mark on the industry.

There is not too much concern that Brexit will dramatically affect the sector as the government has shown continued support to improving infrastructure. One concern is that cost pressures will be placed on the supply chain if an adverse exchange rate causes price inflation. It is up to contractors therefore to appropriately prepare and consider how we will be able to directly deliver more elements of work and share their knowledge and experience to help mitigate this challenge.

Construction 2025 states that the government’s vision for the future construction industry is of one that is more diverse, sustainable and innovative; focused on research and with clear leadership from consultants and contractors.

In answer to this, Murphy is developing its innovation capability and implementing a systematic open innovation management system called the Innovation Foundation (IF). The IF allows ideas to be submitted from across the workforce that range from small improvements such as reusable over boots to reduce plastic waste to large improvements like robotic arms to reduce Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS). In the future, Murphy aims to bring along academia, its supply chain and clients on its journey to make innovation part of business as usual.

Case Study: Whiteball Tunnel
One example where the IF is working collaboratively with Murphy’s clients and partners to innovate in the sector is on the Whiteball Tunnel Maintenance project. The team are currently designing new solutions to the traditional challenges of the works that will be carried out over a 23-day blockade period in March 2019.

The original plan was to drill 1380 holes for stainless steel dowels to support a new sprayed concrete lining on the existing brick tunnel. However, stainless steel brings with it a prohibitive cost; normal steel rusts; and drilling is a lengthy operation with operatives limited to just 13 minutes per shift due to risk of HAVS.

Murphy’s IF has since established two possible solutions to these issues. The first is to use a robotic tool manipulator to drill the holes, thereby reducing HAVS risk. The second is to explore the use of Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) dowels in sprayed concrete lining, potentially a first for the tunnelling sector. The robotic arm and GRP dowels will allow Murphy to be more productive, reduce costs and possession times by allowing more drilling per shift and faster dowel installation.

The innovation team are testing the dowels in collaboration with Network Rail and Loughborough University to confirm compliance with the structural requirements. We hope to find results that will allow us to change the process by which we, and others in the industry, restore tunnels, creating a more efficient and cost effective method.

Both of these innovative ideas came through Murphy’s Innovation Foundation (IF) portal and were nurtured by innovation specialists, before being presented by the originator to Murphy’s Engineering Tomorrow Forum (ETF) and approved. The ETF is highly experienced and signifies the company’s commitment to innovation. It is chaired by Murphy CEO John Murphy and attended by the COO, engineering director, people director, two non-executive directors, Professor Barry Clarke from Leeds University and Professor Peter Hansford from University College London (both of whom are also ex-ICE presidents). Interest is already growing around reapplying these innovations across different parts of the business. For example, Murphy’s specialist welding service has also had problems with HAVS and Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WRMSDs) when using grinders in the fabrication of steel pipelines.

The future of the industry
In this £1bn industry we have seen major projects come to completion over the last five years such as the tunnel boring on Crossrail, the Mersey Gateway Bridge and the widening of the M25. The future project pipeline is looking promising, making this is a very exciting time for the industry. There is an increased appetite from clients for creative construction solutions and contractors like Murphy are moving away from a typically, and understandably, risk-averse approach to change, to one that is not afraid to celebrate opportunities for improvement.

New construction makes up around 50 per cent of the industry and repairs and maintenance currently sit at one third of the industry which is a significant overall impact. Network Rail’s move to revive aging infrastructure has put an emphasis on renewals in its CP6 procurement process, moving away from the trend of developing new infrastructure on CP5. In much the same way, innovation is not always about the shiny and new or big impressive technology and fancy kit. We must also revisit the tried and tested, refine processes and look at how we can make small changes that make a big difference.

The bridge and tunnel sector in the UK is significant generating over £1bn of revenue with growth forecasts over four per cent for the next five years. Many existing (and ageing) assets require regular maintenance and construction of new infrastructure calls for improved manufacturing and engineering techniques. A requirement for easier maintenance as well as better monitoring capabilities is now expected. This journey is not without its challenges but innovation and knowledge-sharing will be a key driver in unlocking potential in the industry to enhance productivity, safety and sustainability.

Murphy is excited by this journey and seeking collaboration with industry partners, clients, academia and its supply chain to stimulate these opportunities for improvement and create increased value for the asset owners.

Will Reddaway is Head of Innovation at J. Murphy & Sons Limited, a leading global, multi-disciplined engineering and construction company founded in 1951 that improves lives by delivering world-class infrastructure. Operating in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada, Murphy provides better engineered solutions to infrastructure sectors including transportation; water; power; natural resources; and construction & property.
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