Meeting the challenges of port construction thanks to digital technology


With the government’s much-vaunted Freeport scheme set to give the UK’s trading capabilities a massive boost, there’s never been a better time to get involved in marine and coastal construction.

*Ian Dobson is Head of UK Maritime at ByrneLooby, an AYESA company

As demand grows, the port’s expansion needs will be greater than ever, providing ample business opportunities for specialty contractors, sub-contractors, consultants and material manufacturers. Just recently the Port of Liverpool announced a multi-million pound expansion, one of many similar announcements across the UK. And then there is the consideration of any additional new infrastructure to support the offshore energy sector.

As these opportunities arise, there are significant challenges that the industry will need to address alongside. From a practical point of view, any engineer working in this field will agree that space issues remain a constant headache. I want to break it down into three critical pressure points, the first of which is the space case. Space is tight and it is difficult to accommodate several assets and harmonize them with the main function of the port. Balancing land transport infrastructure and industrial and residential development is art, as they all compete for a footprint in a very small area. Therefore, careful planning among a wider range of stakeholders is needed to maximize economic and social benefits across all sectors.

Second, on the maritime side, a recent conversation I had with Crown Estates revealed the considerable demands for offshore space. Ports and shipping compete with environmental concerns, utilities, telecommunications and renewable energy, requiring careful mapping to minimize any conflict. Third, climate change has led to rising waters and frequent extreme weather events, which means port infrastructure needs to get taller, taller and more robust. This, in turn, affects funding, the amount of energy and the materials used, which is tricky when trying to reach net zero with limited resources. Basically, it’s a constant battle against the elements and the perpetual investment cycle.

The port sector will be at the heart of creating a hydrogen economy. Major port operators from Newcastle to Swansea are planning major projects as part of the decarbonisation of major industry through port-centric hydrogen production and transport. These projects are incredibly exciting and require responsive delivery with innovative solutions to bring the magnitude of change on the horizon.

On the human level, there is unfortunately a significant lack of skills. Of course, Brexit has impacted the recruitment pool, but it goes deeper than that. There is the considerable task of internal development, as we increasingly use digital tools and software in our daily operations. Durability is also a key consideration. Anyone working on these projects must meet very strict criteria, which can be challenging when developing structural solutions in an extreme environment.

These are just some of the specific and current issues we are facing. But I believe we are in an excellent position to tackle them head-on, particularly through greater application of technology in port engineering.

For me, the massive amount of software and hardware now available to engineers should be used to help us innovate and solve these problems. Advances in mapping technology, particularly through the use of drones and unmanned underwater vessels, provide greater accuracy, provide more accurate data, maximize limited space, and reduce the risk of larger tasks. hazardous on site.

In addition, full-life asset management platforms help better plan and coordinate crowded sites to ensure maximum value is extracted from existing assets and provide comprehensive asset insights to the time of transfer, which are often used during the operation and maintenance phase. This reduces the likelihood of a costly recapture or any clashes that may occur on and at sea.

The potential and benefits of AI and AR become more apparent with high definition visualization technology which increases accuracy and therefore reduces waste during construction. These technologies also help us achieve better quality control, moving away from error-prone 2D workflows towards 3D workflows. Likewise, automated machinery and the increasing use of robotics to perform repetitive or high-precision tasks bring efficiency gains and reduce occupational hazards.

Previously, there were apprehensions about this technology; however, this has changed as many stakeholders now view this application as “empowerment enablers” removing human risk and adding efficiencies, as opposed to “job takers”.

Ultimately, digital solutions help address the physical and human challenges that currently exist around port planning and construction, and I’ve only scratched the surface of the potential opportunities. With so much activity in the market and so many projects to complete on time and on budget, those involved in this vertical should look to strategically invest in the latest technology and hone their workforce for the future. to use appropriately and for maximum benefit to all stakeholders.

As pressure mounts to get these supercharged assets up and running after Brexit, the most digitally nimble companies will have the most to gain.

Companies that continue to innovate in the maritime and port sector will provide solutions that meet the requirements of the next generation – collaborative delivery of stakeholders around a small space, offering new sources of energy, less risk, more asset resilience, optimal material utilization and a net-zero approach. It is time to act and the future is now.

*Ian Dobson is Head of UK Maritime at ByrneLooby, an AYESA company

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