Digital disruption through the tunnel

Construction of any city-shaping urbanised tunnel project is never going to be easy. The continual desire and need for high-speed and reliable city services is the reason why tunnels will always be under construction.

What is a modern-day tunnelling project? It’s complex, time-sensitive, cost-sensitive and performance-driven. With these considerations, it’s imperative for constructors and engineers to have timely access to accurate and highly-detailed data. Digital engineering tools can help to achieve this if used in an effective way.

There is also the possibility for great innovation in using digital engineering solutions, not just during project design, but also to help manage and maintain the physical tunnel assets after construction.

The example of West Gate Tunnel

West Gate Tunnel in Melbourne is a modern-day tunnelling project that will provide the much-needed major second river crossing for the city. It would have taken a fleet of draughts people and engineers to manually input data into the tunnel systems 3D model and extract thousands of individual yet highly similar construction plans.

This is where digital drawing automation made its mark. While working on the tunnel systems design for West Gate Tunnel design, Aurecon and Joint Venture partner, Jacobs, looked at automating the generation of design plans. They asked themselves ‘Is it a utopian aspiration to generate plans that automatically respond to ongoing changes in the design, or can it actually be done?’

It can be done, with the right team and digital tools.

3D drawing automation design on West Gate Tunnel project.

3D drawing automation design on West Gate Tunnel project

Assembling the right digital team

The Aurecon and Jacobs Joint Venture (AJJV) assembled a team of engineers and digital specialists to develop a single point of truth 3D model using computational design. This sped up the generation of design plans, reduced communication barriers between engineers and offshore draughts people, and improved coordination between the design teams working on the tunnel.

Tunnel systems design requires complex coordination between structural design and systems, and the leap from manually generating design plans to adopting a ‘smart’ digital process on West Gate Tunnel was the result of collaboration and co-creation.

The 2D plans still had a place on this project as they were used for construction, but the 3D model housed each set of data for the tunnel systems design. The model delivered added value by allowing the engineers to generate the highly similar 2D plans more efficiently and accurately and without repetition.

Computational design for West Gate Tunnel.

Design-led thinking before heading into the tunnel

Engineers in every part of the world are looking to digital disruption tools to help solve complex engineering problems. But what about the human element? We acknowledge that it still takes the fusion of creative and technical minds to bring digital innovation to any project, so this is where Aurecon’s design-led thinking approach helped to find that sweet spot between digital disruption and human characteristics for West Gate Tunnel.

The design-led thinking approach guided the AJJV in its pursuit to design a tunnel systems 3D model to house project data that would also automate the simple tasks of repetition on the large and complex project. Even with this digital transformation, the human characteristics of decision making and problem-solving by engineers was vital.

Throughout the design-led thinking process, the AJJV referred to lived experiences of designing tunnel systems on projects such as WestConnex to guide the thought processes, exploration and experimentation on West Gate Tunnel, and envision what was possible.

How the digital process came together on West Gate Tunnel

Using open-source code for engineering design as a building block, the AJJV digital design team adapted the engineering design programme to create a flexible environment for automation.

The team developed bespoke code to retrieve design data and write routines associated with the design parameters to enable the checking and implementing of designs.

By harnessing the power of this data, engineers produced accurate 3D models of West Gate Tunnel that could be cut into sections and used to produce 2D plans.

It also reduced the risk of human error associated with drafting by one person and then being interpreted differently by another. An additional benefit was the Joint Venture enlisting some of their younger engineers to pair up with experienced engineers to learn the software for future projects.

In January 2019, West Gate Tunnel was named a finalist in the Industrial category of the iTnews Benchmark Awards 2018/19 for its use of digital engineering.

Visual render of the Maribyrnong Bridge and Northern Tunnel portal for the West Gate Tunnel project.

Visual render of the Maribyrnong Bridge and Northern Tunnel portal for the West Gate Tunnel project

The next step to smart asset management

If we take a look towards the future, we see a great opportunity for 3D computational models to transition from project design into being a client’s asset management tool. With its ability to hold important asset information and be the single point of truth with data, the models could inform an owner’s asset management programme and asset investment decisions well after construction is complete.

This information is power to clients as safeguarding asset utilisation is becoming more relevant for tunnel owners where disruptions can impact service availability, safety and reputation.

The saying ‘a system is only as good as its data’ is true for any project. If good tunnel systems asset data is captured during design and inputted to a 3D automation solution, it has the power to give asset owners greater knowledge of asset utilisation and maintenance as they maintain control over asset life cycles and budgets, and operational performance.

The modern-day kaleidoscope of how infrastructure projects connect with digital technologies cannot be underestimated. Now that we have the opportunities that digital engineering tools provide, the future is here with endless possibilities.

About the authors

Cristian Biotto is a senior Tunnel Systems Engineer specialising in the design of tunnel ventilation and tunnel mechanical, electrical and instrumentation (MEI) systems. Experienced in applying and developing computational fluid dynamics (CFD) tools. Passionate about automation of design flows and optimisation of operations.

Prakash Sabapathy is a fire Safety Engineer who has worked on rail, road tunnel and built environment projects in the UK, European Union and New Zealand. He specialises in developing fire safety strategies, and operational and infrastructure requirements for roads, rail tunnels and train stations.

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