Technology paving the way to the digital era

Rachael Bennison, Continuous Improvement Manager

Big data is a term that has been widely used by the business community in the past few years but one which, to date, has yet to fully deliver its potential impact in the highways industry.

All areas of the UK economy are frequently being encouraged to ‘work smarter’ by innovating and utilising new, digital tools to improve efficiency. Central to this is automation, or getting technology to perform processes in minutes to identify patterns or trends within data that would potentially take people a lifetime.

The highways sector has been challenged by Highways England to meet tough efficiency targets and by the Government to help develop improved asset management for clients. Greater digitisation has a role to play in supporting the delivery of both of these objectives.

Data-led approach

By implementing a data-led approach to road surfacing, the opportunities for clients, consultants and contractors are significant. A big data approach could achieve three major things:

The first is finance. It can better inform local authorities’ asset management plans to help them unlock additional funding streams through the Department for Transport.

The second is how money is spent. Big Data analysis could help to inform spending decisions on the network by analysing lifecycle predictive modelling.

The last is sustainability. Big Data processes could provide a better record of the composition of pavements to help understand the quantity and quality of asphalt which could be recycled in the future.

It is important that we are able to work collaboratively across the supply chain to record and analyse the work that contractors are carrying out on the road network. Local authorities and network operators will only be able to develop detailed and holistic views of their assets once these processes become the norm.

New technology

One way that we can evolve is by equipping our highways operatives with automated paving technology, designed not only to deliver a more consistent and efficient laying and compaction but to collect data on the condition and material composition of our roads.

At Tarmac we’ve developed a bespoke and innovative automated process which combines data capture during surfacing projects and advanced analysis to inform client asset management plans.

By using sensors on the paving and compaction equipment during the laying process, data is collected and recorded about the quality of the installation, from the type and temperature of materials used to the ambient weather conditions.

Not only are these key metrics about the pavement installation recorded by the technology, but operators are also provided with live guidance to improve the laying and compaction quality.

A colour-coded in-cab readout allows the roller driver to see how many passes have been completed on the new surface, enabling them to ensure sufficient compaction in one location and focus on cooler areas first. It also confirms that first pass temperatures have been achieved evenly.

An electronic laying and compaction record for each load is then uploaded into a software system and mapped, providing the client with permanent, on-demand access to the data.

As an industry we need to continue to work more collaboratively, engage early and adopt innovative technology and processes to contribute to a new, more efficient approach to maintaining the strategic and local road networks.

On top of financial, project management and sustainability benefits, systems such as these can undoubtedly help play a part in driving innovation and the need to meet ever-more demanding efficiency targets and embrace the digital era.