Heijmans: “Automate faster through collaboration”

"It is more efficient to teach a structural engineer to programme, than to let a programmer master the basics of structural engineering," says Tom Nillesen, structural engineer at Heijmans. In the past six months, he has been taking the first steps towards automation. Nillesen, “The drive for automation has grown from a project that involved a lot of repetition. We started working with VIKTOR, with co-development, because we didn't have the knowledge to develop it all by ourselves.”

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Automation in construction

Automation is a movement that has started to emerge in construction in recent years. Heijmans’ design department started automating a year ago. “It is certain that we have taken a path here that we want to keep following,” says Nillesen. He has noticed that there are more and more companies that want to capture their knowledge, but also really want to discover and design new things. “The construction of a viaduct or of a section of highway covers many different aspects of construction. So many different disciplines, companies, people. ” The challenge is to get everyone involved in the automated process.

“The VIKTOR platform is a web-based platform on which online applications can be built. These applications are developed using a widely used programming language: Python.”

Tom Nillesen senior structural engineer at Heijmans

Co-development with VIKTOR

Constructors and geotechnical consultants, as well as designers and modellers, work within his department. Nillesen: “Everyone has their own software packages and works digitally, but we still do many intermediate steps by hand. We see a lot of opportunities there. ” Together with the developers of VIKTOR, they started working on an application for pile foundations. The first application was built within two weeks! Nillesen explains, “For pile foundations we currently have software that is not extremely complicated, but is written more for geotechnical consultants. We have tried to rewrite that logic to something that is useful for a manufacturer. ” The goal is that (for the simplest constructions) a structural engineer can design a simple foundation, without the constant need to consult with the geotechnical consultant. In practice, this results in a reduction of 2 days in lead time; time that can now be spent more efficiently.

Internally (at the Heijmans design department) they did not know enough about programming to be able to develop the application themselves. That is why co-development with VIKTOR developers was chosen. It would take a lot of energy for Nillesen and his team to transfer all their knowledge to an external programmer. “A lot of the knowledge we have comes from the practical experience we have gained. You don’t get that at university”, explains Nillesen. By developing the application together with VIKTOR, the engineers learn to programme, Nillesen: “It is more effective if you both speak the same language.”

Challenges in the project

According to Nillesen, the biggest challenge is to convince all his colleagues, “Everyone should understand the added value of automation. You need a good foundation for that, for example: if we can show that they need 3 days for something that we will be able to do in half an hour. ” In addition, manufacturers will always be needed and will not disappear, as some people now think. Nillesen, “I think that the engineering profession will change due to automation, but it is not possible to programme all jobs away.” For example, with a viaduct, the structural engineer will always have to assess whether the load on the viaduct is transferred to the subsurface in the most efficient way. In addition, the engineer must play a role in continuing to verify the results in a calculation and in assessing deviations from the design during construction. “You should always keep that knowledge, you cannot record all of that in an application. It remains human work, ”says Nillesen.

“The VIKTOR platform provides us with many possibilities: a central point for saving projects and for presenting.”

Tom Nillesen

Plans for the future

The first applications were put online on January 6. “We are satisfied with what we have achieved, also because we have learned a lot in the field of automation and programming itself,” says Nillesen. In addition, there are already plans for further applications, including concrete cross-section testing. This will also be a fairly simple application with existing software, which they want to integrate into a VIKTOR application. “We want to see if it works easily, because that offers more opportunities for the future. When you start working on it, you start to see more and more possibilities: can we tie this on and can we automate this too?

Heijmans and VIKTOR will continue to cooperate for the development of this application. Nillesen explains, “Even though we can now programme something by ourselves, it is still nice to have a professional present. Someone who understands software development and who you can ask questions. This way you learn much faster and the whole development process goes a little faster, which just works very well.”

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