Crossrail's game-changing innovation targets legacy / by Scott A.

Crossrail is nearing the finish line but its innovation programme is set to live on. Daniel Kemp descends into one of its new stations to discover what’s been achieved so far.

Of all the major projects currently under way, Crossrail will leave one of the biggest legacies for the general public.

It will be used by hundreds of thousands of people every day, easing congestion for many and speeding up commute times around the capital.

But what about its legacy for the construction industry?

This is always an interesting question for projects of the size and scale of Crossrail; inevitably, a great deal of innovation will go into its design and construction, purely to overcome the sheer challenge of delivering a mega-project such as this.

Capturing that innovation more formally, though, has not traditionally been one of the industry’s strengths. So Crossrail decided to try something different to change that.

Proud to pinch

Just before Christmas, CN was invited to tour Crossrail’s Liverpool Street station site, being overseen by main contractor Laing O’Rourke. The visit aimed to show off some of the results of Crossrail’s innovation programme, known as Innovate18.

Developed in conjunction with Imperial College London, the programme sought to provide a focal point for collaboration between the project’s various main contractors, subcontractors and consultants, encouraging them to share ideas and “pinch with pride”, as Crossrail innovation programme manager William Reddaway puts it.

“We asked, ‘Why can’t we do things differently? Why can’t we do an innovation programme within a temporary and publicly funded organisation?’,” he says.

The client went out to its supply chain, getting the support of big names including Laing O’Rourke as well as Balfour Beatty, Bam Nuttall, Costain, Dragados, Ferrovial, Hochtief, Kier, Morgan Sindall, Murphy, Skanska and Vinci, plus a range organisations from government and academia.

The members all paid into a shared pot, with Crossrail matching it to provide seed funding to develop innovative ideas. “So in a perverse way, the client asked the supply chain to pay them to be part of an innovation programme,” Mr Reddaway says.

“Crossrail match-funded it and we created a pot of £800,000 to do proof of concept – nothing revolutionary, [just] enough to shake the industry up a little bit. Construction is still lagging behind when it comes to reaching forwards for innovation, but there are lots of people helping to [improve that].”

Augmented reality innovation

We descend into the bowels of the new Liverpool Street station via the Moorgate shaft, passing the new Moorgate ticket hall on the way. Once at the bottom, we emerge onto what will be one of the platforms to see some of the results of the Innovate18 programme.

Helping to support some of the new technologies is a wifi system, installed by Laing O’Rourke to increase efficiency. One of the simpler innovations has seen portable projectors used to conduct onsite briefings and design meetings, without staff having to shuttle back and forth to the site office upstairs – something that would be next-to-impossible without internet access.

A 3D printer from Afinia has been deployed to generate models of items to be lifted, which are then presented at team briefings to show operatives how to sling them safely and how the items react to being moved.

CN gets a hands-on demonstration from digital visualisation specialist Solius, which successfully bid for seed funding from the Innovate18 programme. It has brought a Daqri Smart Helmet and Microsoft HoloLens below ground to show off the potential of augmented reality on site. 

AR differs from virtual reality because it is not immersive – instead, it places a digital layer of content over the real world, directly onto the user’s field of view. It works in much the same way that a fighter pilot has a heads-up display projected onto their canopy or helmet visor.

“When we pitched for the funding, the Daqri Smart Helmet had just been announced, which brings hands-free, heads-up AR to construction and infrastructure contexts like this,” says Solius senior communications manager Fergus Bruce. “The consumer version [of the smart helmet] will be PPE-compliant, so the investigation was to work out if it could be useful.”

The major promise of AR is that allows its users to be aware of their surroundings while using it – a big boost for a safety-critical industry like construction.

Solius has worked up the Daqri Smart Helmet into a proof-of-concept model, using it to scan precast components marked with a QR code. Once scanned, the technology brings up an AR checklist visible to the helmet’s user, who can then assess the suitability of the component and even take a picture of it if it’s faulty.

“On this job there are close to 10,500 precast components that will come in,” says Raviintheran Kugananthan, Laing O’Rourke project engineer for tunnels and platforms at the Liverpool Street station site. 

“Each of them has to be tracked, placed and have background information. You can take a photo [using the helmet] and it will transmit the info back to the office straight away over wifi – you don’t need to go back up and synchronise.”

The team has got the system working using Crossrail’s seed funding and proved that it can be useful in a site context. They also made the application applicable to Microsoft’s HoloLens once it was released – a very similar piece of technology, but without the PPE protection afforded by the helmet.

Other innovations being used on the Liverpool Street site include: Google Cardboard, a VR viewer used for designers and CDM co-ordinators; GoPro cameras to provide a first-person perspective of works that can be analysed by safety managers and the team to seek improvements in methodologies; drones for filming fly-throughs and carrying out inspections; and 360-degree video cameras, used to provide more immersive site imagery, support progress reporting and carry out dilapidation surveys and inspections.

New platforms lure big clients

The innovations developed on Crossrail, of which these are but a small example, are not the end of Innovate18, however.

The programme has morphed into a new beast: the Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform – or i3P, as it is now known.

i3P has already received the backing of major industry representative bodies, including the Construction Leadership Council (which is co-chaired by Crossrail chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme) and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association.

“With Crossrail coming to an end, the supply chain and other projects like Tideway and Hinkley asked what would happen,” Mr Reddaway says. “We’re now working in collaboration with other organisations like Innovate UK, who are going to be hosting and acting as secretariat for i3P.”

In addition to Tideway and Hinkley, Mr Reddaway says the new platform has involvement from Heathrow Airport, Highways England, Network Rail and the Environment Agency, with Hinkley said to be already considering formal innovation at its design stage – earlier than on Crossrail.

“We invested intellectually and emotionally into what we’ve achieved – so can we not develop it?” Mr Reddaway adds.

“That was what happened at Terminal 5 – Andrew [Wolstenholme], our CEO, said we learned lessons and saw the legacy from that, so why not create our own legacy while we’re still delivering the programme?”