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The following article appear on the Ground Engineering website and presents a RMD Kwikform view of the future direction of the Ground Shoring sector…

The future is light

What does the future hold for propping and shoring and what will the industry look like in 50 years’ time?

Fifty years is a long time when we think about technology, but will developments in propping and shoring keep up? RMD Kwikform’s commercial director John Breen and principal engineer Simon Wilkinson consider how the wider construction industry could change, and why they do believe the geotechnical sector will also evolve.

“Building techniques are changing; precast operations are becoming the norm. However, one of the things we can’t do, as an industry, is precast a hole in the ground.” explains Breen.

This is where Breen thinks the greatest advances can be made in the industry and will involve a bit of creative thinking and radical engineering.

Breen continues: “Although it is impossible to precast holes, further discussion and developments will need to take place in order to make the excavation of holes safer, more efficient and perhaps, in the future, the application will be performed with less, or no human interaction.

“But firstly, I want to consider a change in materials. We use an awful lot of steel in our construction of ground support systems, however I’m quite certain that the use of steel will diminish, and we will look at really high-grade alloys with greater strength to weight ratio. There will be a lot more use of robust carbon fibre type material. For instance, rather than having big steel tubes, we will have large spun carbon fibre props – which are much more durable, and we will see a lot more radical engineering when it comes to products.

Wilkinson agrees: “There is already signs of a shift towards polymers, carbon fibre and other high strength composites type materials. This shift will become more pronounced. It will also include materials that are much lighter, such as glass reinforced plastic (GRP) or aluminium for shallower excavations where we can gain extra strength but still use fairly light components.”

Breen adds: “It’s all about weight and strength. If we look at a 100 years ago when titanium was first used to where we are now, and the way materials have evolved, it is just the next evolutionally step.”

But Wilkinson warns that quality control could be an issue. “It is tricky to ensure a consistent quality of the material’s properties,” he says. “Whereas steel is a repeatable product and closely controlled, a GRP composite can vary in thicknesses and material make up. If manufacturing techniques can evolve to ensure a greater consistency in the quality of materials, I envisage we’ll be stepping away from steel sooner rather than later.”

Alongside the development of manufacturing techniques and product engineering, Breen believes the industry will grow to be much savvier when it comes to the management and monitoring of applications. “Currently, we do a lot of theoretical based assumptions on ground conditions and material behaviour. But I don’t think the industry fully understands certain properties or how best to use the current ‘anecdotal’ information we capture.

“Technology and improved analysis techniques will have to be a key aspect of any project in the future. I think the tools will be available to understand exactly how excavations behave, in turn this will enable us to interrogate real-time data and transform this into practical, accurate information.

“This information will allow us to consider the engineering process and allow for more solid judgements to be made around safety assurance, component size and capacities.  We are already seeing proprietary props with 500t capacities, and with the suspected changes in materials, improved analysis techniques will allow us to increase capacity further knowing that the solution is safe and fit-for-purpose,” adds Breen.

The use of real time monitoring will definitely increase on compact city centre sites. “There is a massive potential for the industry with more advanced monitoring techniques,” explains Wilkinson. “By using real time monitoring for excavations, there are opportunities to modify and remove temporary works, which can only improve construction efficiency.”

But it is also in the chemical field that Breen sees where the industry could advance over the next half century.

“I think chemicals will also impact how we work in the future,” explains Breen. “Currently we dig holes and support them with pieces of steel. I think there might be a possibility where you pre-inject ground to stabilise it with a built-in obsolesce. It hardens, its self-supporting, you dig it, you dig it out, you can dig through it and then it dissolves back into the material into the ground and becomes inert.

“It’s the next evolutional step to ground freezing, which uses less energy. The day will come when it is just the norm; you can freeze the ground with chemicals or water and you just cut through it with a different type of tool. There may no longer be a need for excavation buckets as we will be using other forms of excavations.”

So, to fast forward half a century it’s time to consider whether people will still be needed? Breen believes they will, but the roles and responsibilities will evolve: “We’ve already seen autonomous machines in operation on sites, but this tends to be on demolition sites or on quarries. Heavy plant machinery is evolving rapidly, but we don’t yet have the ability or software to manage autonomous machines within deep excavations.

“What machinery is currently doing in other sectors, is managing and monitoring excavations and grading levels. Through pre-programmed instructions, machines are performing excavations to the required level – but the machine is still being handled by an operator. In 50 years’, or earlier, I suspect that machinery and robotics will be key in delivering deep excavations. Controlled remotely, perhaps even from several miles away, artificially intelligent machinery will be programmed to deliver each application safely on site, and feature elements of ‘intuition’ in order to avoid tubular props and other potential collisions.”

Breen also believes that the industry will ensure sustainability and eco-friendly solutions are mandatory.

“Although there’s no ‘sustainable construction’ mandate, the shoring market is already well ahead. We recycle all of our products as they’re not built for ‘one-time use’; they are reused and redesigned for various operations. Nothing goes to waste.

“This has always been the norm with structural steel, and similarly with proprietary systems in the last thirty years. However, with a projected shift towards carbon fibre beams that are significantly lighter, rather than the big steel walers and beams, transport costs should decrease. In addition, the sizes of machines to lift and move the beams will be smaller, and with fewer in operation on site, carbon emissions will be reduced.”

Breen concludes: “Unfortunately, our climate is changing, and the impact of these changes will shape the future direction of the construction industry as we come to face new ways of working, new materials and acceptable levels of environmental impact. One of the consequences of climate change could be a shift towards more subterranean excavation developments – why are we building up, when we could or should go underground?”

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