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The VR Revolution: interview with BAM Nuttall’s Head of Innovation

Colin Evison, BAM Nuttall’s first Head of Innovation, speaks exclusively to UK Construction Online about his new role, the importance of innovation and the emergence of augmented and virtual reality in the construction sector.

Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Colin is a former chairman of the Railway Civil Engineers’ Association. He has over 25 years design and construction experience, having worked on a number of major projects including the Victoria Station Upgrade and Bhairab Bridge in Bangladesh.


As BAM Nuttall’s first Head of Innovation, what do you see as being your core responsibilities?

This is a new role for me and for BAM Nuttall but I’ve been with the company nearly 20 years now, having worked in various civil engineering roles previously.

As part of our defined strategic agenda we’ve said that “doing new things” must form 10% of our turnover by 2020. That might mean new materials, new products or new customers – there are a lot of different definitions for “doing new things”. We have already established some great new relationships to explore potential business opportunities.

Bringing improvements into what we’re already doing forms part of my role as well. Looking at the ways in which we have delivered projects or used tools in the past, is there anything that we can bring into BAM, the construction sector or the UK as a whole that has the potential to make things quicker, safer or easier?

Is the emergence of the Head of Innovation role a sign of the times?

I think so. The construction sector is waking up and realising that there is a need to do things differently. There are a lot of busy people doing their day jobs that have ideas about improvements but lack someone to sound them off against. They need others to take up their ideas and develop them further. That’s what businesses like ours are attempting to do; to have a dedicated team that can help make some of those ideas a reality.

Historically, the construction sector has been fairly slow to embrace exciting new technologies. Is this still the case or has the industry become more amenable to innovation?

I think we’re getting a lot smarter. There’s an organisation – I3P – currently in its infancy, which is bringing together the whole of the infrastructure industry in an attempt to breakdown some of the barriers to these things being implemented. Many of the ideas and innovations that people come up with are fantastic but you do tend to encounter issues of “show me where it’s been done successfully over the last ten years”. Things are improving but in order to be more efficient, which the Government keeps calling for our industry to be, we need to adopt a bit of a new approach.

How is BAM Nuttall exploring the possibilities of augmented and virtual reality?

We’ve trialled and evaluated different technologies, just really to give us something to take round the business and show to our colleagues. Once people experience it, the ideas just keep on coming. We’ve done a bit with augmented and virtual reality and we’ve since invested in a couple of Microsoft HoloLens to show people what’s possible. Now, we’re thinking about how best to use this technology – whether as a design tool, a method of engaging with stakeholders, or a means of selling our services to potential clients.

There’s a whole piece on encouraging young people into the construction sector as well. We need to inspire kids in schools and make sure they see construction as an exciting and viable career path.

For many, augmented and virtual reality remains something of a gimmick. How do you go about changing those perceptions?

There’s an initial impression of “what’s this you’re playing around with now?” But once people see VR first-hand, they begin to think about how it can be applied to their own jobs; about examples in the past when they’ve struggled with communication. VR is generally more accepted as a tool that people can use to do what we do. They might have seen kids play with it in one arena but it’s now becoming commonplace in industry.

Has consumer use helped build the case for VR in construction?

It has. Initially, you would need high-end computing power but VR is much more accessible now. The cost has come down and companies like Samsung are readily advertising it as something that can be picked up on the high street.

There are apps available on smart phones as well. People are already carrying the hardware around in their pockets and that’s definitely helping to increase accessibility and awareness of VR technology.

For SMEs, is augmented and virtual reality worth the investment at this stage?

I think they can dip their toe in the water. It can do no harm. Whether you’re using a 360 camera to create your own photos and videos or designing with 3D modelling software, which is now increasingly the norm across the industry, you can readily convert that data into a VR environment. It’s a different way of interrogating the information.

Cost isn’t a barrier anymore. It’s about awareness of what VR can do – making sure that people can see the value that they might get from it.

How long before augmented and virtual reality is as ubiquitous as Building Information Modelling?

We’re maybe a couple of years away from full saturation. Certainly in our business, when you ask people what VR is, they’ve seen it in one form or another. Whether they’ve seen it or actually used it as part of their job is the difference between where we are now and where we will be in a couple of years.

But we’re now beginning to be asked by clients how we are using this technology. We’re working with HS2 Ltd at the moment and they’re asking us to look specifically at how we will be using the HoloLens on one of their enabling works projects. Obviously, someone within that organisation sees VR as being of sufficient value to implement for real rather than a trial, and that’s certainly encouraging uptake.

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