Andrew Harris isn’t worried about his competitors in the construction industry. He’s worried about a tech giant turning the industry on its head and leaving the rest of them flat footed.
Andrew Harris, head of Laing O’Rourke’s Engineering Excellence Group, is sure of two things: that the pace of technological change is so fast that virtually anything will be possible in the future; and that the construction industry is set to change dramatically. He wants to be at the vanguard of that change.
He finds inspiration in some unlikely places: aerospace and Formula One. But he keeps his closest eye on Google.
“Google bought a construction company a couple years ago, just to have a play with,” he said.
“What does it look like? How does it work? From that they’ve spun out a platform called Flux from their X-Labs, the same people who did their driverless cars. It’s a fully-integrated design and planning system. You can tell it which land you’ve got and it says, this is your design envelope, these are your possible parameters, this is what happens to the sun, this is what happens to the view. All done in a single platform.”
But that’s only the beginning, says Harris. Of more concern to him is the new Google headquarters being built in California.
“They decided that the program that they’d set, the productivity that they required to meet their budget and their design, was something that the traditional construction industry couldn’t deliver,” Harris said.
“They conceived a solution they called a crabot, half crane, half robot. They designed it, they patented it, all in a very short time. That is coming from outside. I’m not worried about my competitors, local or international. I am worried about what the big tech players are doing.”
Laing O’Rourke is better placed than most. They established their Engineering Excellence Group just over five years ago, and Harris said the idea came from the top, Laing O’Rourke’s Founder and Chief Executive Ray O’Rourke.
“He’s a true innovator and has always wanted to cause disruptive change in the construction industry,” he said.
“In our early conversations about what he was after, it was a really compelling story. He’s intimately engaged with the challenges in the construction industry, whether they’re health and safety, or productivity, or cost escalation, those sorts of things. He could see that the solution to that was not to do incremental things. It was to do bold, disruptive innovation.”
Harris said O’Rourke realised that to be successful with the Engineering Excellence Group, it needed to be done differently.
“You couldn’t have it embedded into the business. It had to be in this sort of environment.”
Their office is over the road from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sydney, where Harris is also a professor and director of the Laboratory for Sustainable Technology. Harris said he values links with academia and encourages that with his staff. He rattles off a list of universities including Sydney, UNSW, UTS, ETH Zurich and Stanford where his staff are actively involved in projects.
“It was really important that this group was able to act as a bridge between the best that comes from our universities and industry,” he said.
He feels that the universities benefit as much as industry, suggesting they are able to tell a story to the broader research community that their work goes beyond pure research and has impact.
“We can tell some wonderful stories about how we’re doing work here in our labs that is benefiting the whole of Australia,” Harris said.
He added that it also helps address concerns that Australian universities are poor at collaborating with industry and vice-versa.
“I think there’s truth in both of those stories,” Harris said.
“The figures make very clear that Australia is not great in terms of technology transfer out of the labs. We publish lots of research that’s world-class. We punch well above our weight in the lab. But we’ve got to do more to show how we translate that into the real world environment, the industrial sectors.”
Incremental or disruptive?
Harris is adamant that innovation is not just about coming up with clever new ideas; the key is turning it into something that is commercially valuable. He is also wary of over complicating definitions of what innovation is.
“There are only two types. There’s incremental, i.e. doing tomorrow what you did today, a bit better. That’s everybody’s job every day,” he said.
“And there’s disruptive innovation, something that means the status quo is no more. This team focuses largely on disruptive. We did set up an innovation platform for the entire business. It’s a portal people can submit ideas to, propose new programs, and all that sort of stuff. That is important. We help with that, but that belongs to the business.”
The other key to being innovative is not being afraid of failure.
“The reason we’re here and segregated from the business is, this is designed to be a safe place to fail,” he said, offering up exoskeletons as an example.
“Maybe all the good ones go the Department of Defence and nobody ever hears about them,” he said.
“We tried one which was awful. Maybe it malfunctioned. But it was really clunky and it was just terrible. We thought about it a bit and our safety team said, ‘do you really think it’s the right answer to make a bloke, who under duress can lift 100 kilos, and give him the capability to lift 200?’ It’s probably going to encourage the wrong sort of behaviour, rather than produce new productivity and efficiency.”
He said they still have an exoskeleton program, but it looks at other things.
“It’s soft exoskeletons and they’re to prevent RSI rather than give you augmented lifting capability,” Harris said.
Part of Andrew Harris’s other job at the University of Sydney involves biomimetics, the reverse engineering of nature, and this is an area they are exploring at the Engineering Excellence Group as well. He shows a photograph that looks like a cross-section of bone and reveals it to be a magnified cross-section of a dandelion.
“That’s what it looks like, no right angles ever. You have gradiated structures when you need strength and where you don’t need anything, there’s nothing,” he said.
“These holes in the middle, they’re called vacuoles. They’re the main channels for water and nutrients from the roots up to the extremities. In an engineering context, if I was to make a column in a building that looks like this inside, how does it work, how do you make it? It turns out it has exactly the same structure and performance and in fact, it’s probably a little bit better. You’ve got hot water, cold water, air conditioning, integrated services. I’m interested in that, because that is a disruptive change to how we deliver all assets.”
He said they have calculated that building such a column could use 45 per cent less material than for an equivalent conventional column and, with 3D printing, needn’t be more expensive to manufacture in the long run.
But their ideas come from much wider sources than nature. He mentions a hard hat developed by the group that measures heart rate, brain activity, alertness, temperature, humidity and orientation.
“This came about because in the UK, we borrowed some tech that McLaren uses on their Formula One drivers,” he said.
Harris thinks that in the future, companies like Laing O’Rourke could have a “NASA-like” control room where their plant and people and equipment are monitored. But the original idea came from looking outside their normal realm of experience, in this case at Formula One. He said Formula One and aerospace are favourite sources of inspiration because they have to be at the cutting edge of technology to be successful.
“They’re really a test bed for all sorts of things that are coming next,” Harris said.
“The thing that I like about them is that they move so fast – not the cars, but the rate of change in the industry. They’re having to be really nimble at adapting. We can take that technology and apply it in this sector.”
One project Harri’s group has been working on involves augmented reality and, he says, it is now used on all of Laing O’Rourke’s projects. Using an Oculus headset, an individual can check how a development could be while looking at the actual site.
He tells of a rail project in Melbourne and a man concerned it might spoil the view from his house The man spent about four hours exploring the project with the Oculus headset and his fears were alleviated.
Another project involved mapping the utilities under Sydney’s George Street for the installation of a new light rail line.
“Our solution was a digital model of those assets you can put in the cab of your excavator,” he said.
“When the operator is digging a hole over one of these assets, the computer says, ‘No, don’t dig’. It is engineering accurate.”
The right people
Harris’s team is not restricted to civil engineers. They’re not even restricted to engineers.
“They come from all over. That’s by design. Mathematicians, designers, engineers of every description, a lawyer, a musician. We’ve got people with skills in psychology and social behaviour,” he said.
“There are two reasons for that. First, I believe that the solutions to the major challenges that humankind faces will come about when the established disciplines rub up against each other, that’s where the next leaps will come from. We deliberately set out to have a team that does that. The other part was to challenge the status quo in the industry. I believe if you think the same, act the same, do the same, you’ll get the same. You need to change that up a bit.”
He gave the example of the SunSHIFT project, which started within his team and has since spun out as a standalone business.
“It’s a redeployable solar energy system that is a hybrid system of diesel and battery, and the guy who developed it has a PhD in mathematics,” Harris said.
“He now runs that business. It’s a fantastic success. But if you’d asked Laing O’Rourke five years ago, would you employ somebody with a PhD in maths to run a renewable energy business, they’d probably have said, ‘It depends.’ Today, they think he’s the bee’s knees. He’s smart. He communicates well. He’s focused on delivering.”
And that is why he has chosen the team he has. He said he will take anyone from anywhere as long as they are smart, engaged and interested in the work being done in the Engineering Excellence Group.
“I try to look for problems that are not in a little box that already has a name. I’m interested in where those boxes come together,” he said.
“What happens when you get a biologist, a mathematician and an engineer in a room and they’re trying to solve a problem? That’s the stuff that I love. It turns out that those skills are even relevant in engineering and the construction industry where you’ve got complicated, unstructured environments with big challenges and you’re trying to deliver billion dollar projects.
“That’s a fantastic place to do innovation, from my perspective.”