A leap towards smarter engineering 09 Nov 2017

Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk

It was delivery of far-sighted and realistic possibility. It was in effect a catapult from the status quo into how engineers will operate and work to fulfil their historic obligations to society and in a future that seems not so distant. And for Professor Lord Robert Mair, this vision of how engineering will change, as presented in his inaugural address as the 153rd President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, is backed by his education, experience and career path.

Professor Lord Robert Mair, CBE, FRS, FICE, FREng
153rd President of ICE

  • 2017 January Confirmed as next ICE President to succeed Tim Broyd in November
  • 2015 October Created a life peer with the title Baron Mair, of Cambridge in the County of Cambridgeshire and took his seat as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords
  • 2014 Elected a vice president of the ICE
  • Currently Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Cambridge
  • 2011 Appointed Chief Engineering Adviser to Laing O'Rourke Group
  • 2011-17 Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering
  • 2010 New Year Honours Appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
  • 2007 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)
  • 2001-11 Master of Jesus College, Cambridge
  • 1998-01 Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge
  • 1998 Appointed Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at Cambridge University
  • 1992 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering (FREng)
  • 1990 Elected a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers (FICE)
  • 1983 Co-founding director of GCG, the Geotechnical Consulting Group

The address, titled Transforming Infrastructure, Transforming Lives – Building on 200 years covered a wide spectrum of topics that illustrate how the future of engineering will change under the influence of new technology and new practices.

In short, the world will need “agile engineers” able to use and harness the powers of new technologies. “We need new and fast – not old and slow. We need to be ambitious and bold and we have 200 years of fearless engineering heritage to build on.”

The year-long presidency for Lord Mair coincides with the 200th anniversary of the Institution of Civil Engineers - following the first meeting of a group of young engineers in a coffee house in London in 1818 - and with 2018 as the international year of engineering and the hosting by the ICE in London of the Global Engineering Congress from 22-26 October 2018.

In setting out the vision for his year as President, he called on the courage, determination and knowledge of predecessors, including Joseph Bazalgette (the creator of modern sewer and drainage systems) and Thomas Telford (the engineer of so many bridges and tunnels during the industrial revolution era), the works of both, and many other engineers of the 19th century, still existing and part of functioning systems today. We will need the same courage and confidence in our abilities said Lord Mair in coping with the challenges that confront civil engineers of the present. These he listed as rapid population growth across the globe; the threat of climate change on environments; the need for vastly more amounts of affordable energy; the reality that one in eight people of the world live in extreme poverty; that 2 billion people are not connected to even rudimentary sanitation systems and that 750 million have access to only unclean water sources.

Lord Mair presents a vision of the future
Lord Mair presents a vision of the future

To address these issues, Lord Mair proposed that engineers of the future will have to continue in the belief that the mission of the engineer is to transform the reality of infrastructure in order to transform the lives of all people of the world no matter where or in what current circumstances and to prepare for the future by embracing three particular themes:

  • Digital technology to better understand the behavior and the on-going status of the world and the infrastructure we live in currently;
  • Improve manufacturing productivity to be better stewards of spending public money; and
  • Use modern technology to monitor the performance of existing and new elements of infrastructure to create ‘smart’ assets to improve asset management and monitor existing infrastructure to assist more efficient design and maintenance of assets.

Examples to illustrate the points were provided.

Better use of digital data was based on the greater use of monitoring systems. One of the principal examples of gathering data to provide reaction to situations was the development and use of compensation grouting.

As a champion of the concept, Lord Mair began his study and development of the method as a young geotechnical engineer assigned to a project in Hong Kong in the 1970s and became involved in the feasibility of building an underground metro system for the rapidly expanding conurbation without causing any damage to the buildings on the surface. Through his consistent connection with the world of academia, he managed many research projects into the behaviour of the ground when subjected to excavation and developed the system of compensation ground through experiment full scale applications and into its introduction as a major support system above the underground works of the Jubilee Line Extension of the London Underground, particularly in association with the excavation of the Westminster Station and running tunnels adjacent to and past the Houses of Parliament and the famous Big Ben clock tower.

Smart infrastructure is based on long term installation of wireless sensors that transfer data continuously and automatically
Smart infrastructure is based on long term installation of wireless sensors that transfer data continuously and automatically

Following these early applications, he explained that it can now be used more discerningly. The key, as he explained also in his Sir Alan Muir Wood Lecture in 2011, is to investigate the flexibility of each building and its potential movement and behaviour when subjected to inevitable, but controllable, settlement ground loss troughs created above underground excavation works.

Compensation grouting is certainly a tool to instil confidence for owners of buildings and clients of major underground urban works that excavation can be achieved without causing damage to third party property, much has been achieved within the excavation industry itself to control the face loss that causes ground movement and surface settlement with the introduction of closed face TBMs and perfected use open face shotcrete lined sequential excavation operations.

To illustrate improvements in productivity, the example was the production of precast elements off-site for installation onsite. The example was for production of track bed slabs and station platforms on the Crossrail Project in London. To cast the elements in situ in one station required 57 workers in crews on site and 67,000 man working hours. Precasting the elements offsite for shipment in for installation at another station required seven workers in crews onsite and 27,000 working hours, constituting a major saving in time and money.

Smart assets were described as being those fitted with automatic, continuously transmitting networks of fibre-optic sensors. “These systems will tell us the condition of the assets as well as their behaviour over time and warn us of the need for maintenance and repair before any catastrophic failure.” Illustrating the point, Lord Mair highlighted the fact that there are 18,000 bridges in the UK of masonry construction and in uncertain condition. Fitting these with fibre optic sensors will provide the monitoring needed to manage their continued use within the transport infrastructure.

Crossrail and the Thames Tideway sewer tunnels were listed as infrastructure fitted with fibre optic sensors as part of the construction phase to create smart assets of the future.

Mair with the eight young graduates of the Future Leaders Scheme
Mair with the eight young graduates of the Future Leaders Scheme

The development of these systems are all initiated in academia and while Lord Mair supports this traditional source of development, he also has a link into industry though the GCG, the consulting company he co-founded in the 1980s and warned academics to break out of the university environment to work with industry more effectively to create that necessary transition of developments into the real world of application. He also warned clients to free up the ability of contractors and designers to take the risks involved with introducing new innovations. These too are major themes for the new ICE President through his year in office.

Ahead of the address, Mair hosted a reception for his eight Future Leaders, a scheme formerly known as the President's Apprentice Scheme and open to all technicians and ICE graduate members working towards their professional qualification. Since the first intake in 2005 the scheme has offered an opportunity to gain experience, develop skills, learn about the industry and be mentored by the ICE President. The eight successful Future Leaders will attend ICE events, meet senior industry people and join Lord Mair on regional visits.

Traditional portrait of the current ICE President
Traditional portrait of the current ICE President

In the reception after the presidential address, Mair unveiled the traditional portrait of the current President that hangs in the foyer of the ICE headquarters at One Great George Street in London. The portrait was painted by a friend of his daughter. Both attend Edinburgh University and the artist was on hand at the portrait unveiling at the reception.

In speaking to previous ICE President Sir John Armitt (2015-2016), who was in the audience along with several other previous Presidents, the question was; is one year as ICE President long enough to fulfil a president’s programme. The answer was that it was felt long enough for the individual, involving a great deal of international travel, but that perhaps not long enough for the ICE support team to see the vision through. The team has just become familiar and on top of the vision and direction set out by the President when a new President is preparing to take office. The annual transitions keep the direction of the ICE fresh and progressive and ready to face the issues of the moment.

In closing an address that was full of inspiration and ambition, Mair reiterated that the world needs to “reject the old and slow and embrace the fast and new” reminding everyone of the truism that “to swim towards the horizon we must have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

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