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How digital transformation is revolutionising the civil engineering industry

02 July 2020

Over the past 40 years digital technology has revolutionised the way we carry out construction projects. But, asks Site Engineer Jack Tregartha, what can we expect moving forward in an industry increasingly dominated by technology? 

How digital transformation is revolutionising the civil engineering industry
What will the future of the industry look like?

Technology has revolutionised the way we perform daily tasks on a personal and business level and construction too is gradually adopting technology into everyday working methods.

In the early 80s the construction industry relied on surveyors using theodolites and dumpy levels to set up profile boards to control the alignment of civil engineering projects. We then took a step towards digital technology with the innovation of total station equipment, halving labour intensity and man hours. The introduction of robotic total stations in 2009, controlled wirelessly through a data logger, halved labour and man hours again increasing productivity.

Now radio navigation satellite systems have been introduced and are becoming ever more accurate with the uprunning of Galileo - a global navigation system which went live in 2016, allowing users to achieve accuracies of up to 1cm.

Alongside this technical revolution we have also witnessed the evolution of 3D machine control. Most commonly placed onto the GPS of a bulldozer, machine control uses satellites to guide the operator to follow the design model issued by the designer. This has totally transformed the way we carry out civil engineering operations today, in particular, earthworks projects.

Below I take a look at the technologies that will continue to help drive efficiency.


Drones will transform the way we process data on large civil engineering projects. If you’ve ever been involved with a large earthworks site, you will understand that even minor inefficiencies in the construction techniques can cost money. Displaying daily volumes of excavated material would enable project managers to analyse the performance of the project in real time.

I think this could play a critical role for main contractors working on a mega project moving large quantities of material such as HS2. It will also provide benefits in claim management and proof of outputs and volumes.

I have witnessed at first hand how a drone being used on a large earthworks site has saved many hours of surveying the field. A fly-over took approximately 2 hours and yielded much more site data than previously possible. Although this was on a relatively flat earthworks plateau, it was a lot simpler to process the information to provide volumetric data. However, on more complex projects with different materials, stockpiles and high vegetation, the accuracy can be compromised and can take longer in the office to get an accurate representation of the site. To address this, 3D drone software is now beginning to show its true value within our industry.

5D Building Information Modelling (BIM)

BIM is slowly being introduced on civil engineering projects and is being used to improve the way data is managed and integrated over different disciplines.

I believe 5D BIM will revolutionise in the construction of HS2. Having more accurate data on each element of the project including a visual, phased construction sequence with associated timelines will minimise interruption during the construction phase. Adding quantifiable materials to this model will ensure accurate procurement of materials is undertaken, again reducing the cost of the project.

However BIM requires buy-in from all parties involved which can be difficult to achieve. It is not yet universally used by all disciplines, and it is therefore hard to mandate its use on civil engineering projects.

Virtual reality

I recently took part in an interactive training session which used virtual reality to demonstrate the scenario of a service strike on site. It was certainly more engaging for the user as opposed to death by PowerPoint and, applied correctly, I think this has a place in our industry for toolbox talks, briefings and inductions.

Despite possible high, upfront costs (to buy headsets and programme software), there is no better way to engage people than by giving them a real-life situation to relate to. I can see this linking to BIM, using a virtual representation of how the project is going to be constructed.

D Printing

3D printing hasn’t really taken off yet within the construction industry to any great extent. However, the increased use of (BIM) will open the gateway for the 3D printing market, minimising wastage, improving productivity and quality.

Firstly, human error will be eliminated, ensuring a perfect product every time. There will also be a reduction in cost due to much lower wastage and only the exact components being manufactured.

Like the adoption of several technologies, (apps, laptops, iPads, mobiles), it can take some years for digital processes to become the norm. However, now the tech revolution has firmly arrived, it will start to revolutionise the way we carry out civil engineering projects.

  • Jack Tregartha Eng Tech MICE, site engineer at Buckingham Group Contracting Ltd at Buckingham Group Contracting Ltd