Vision 2030: automation and digital technology at the heart of a new plan for the highways sector

Amey PLC United Kingdom 11/07/2018 12:23:33

Keeping the UK’s strategic and local road network safe, congestion free and efficiently managed is fundamental to the nation’s social and economic wellbeing. As a key player in the vast team discharging this responsibility, Amey is acutely aware of the network’s vital role and of the consequences of getting it wrong.

Alongside our delivery partners and competitors, we take our responsibility to protect and enhance this huge asset very seriously, investing in the new initiatives, technologies and skills that drive the industry forward. We also need to create a working environment that is attractive to all members of the communities we serve.

An industry-wide plan is lacking

Yet for all this commitment and investment, I believe we still lack a coherent industry-wide vision to underpin what we are trying to achieve. As we strive to boost productivity, deliver better service to our customers, and increase our performance across health, safety and wellbeing we are missing a fundamental plan.

Across the breadth of UK industry and society we see automation and digital technology reshaping lives and working practices. Yet this sector has so far failed to really move on from its traditional, largely manual ways of operating. Productivity has flatlined far too long. We need to step back and think of these challenges as industry-wide issues to be addressed by collaboration across the entire supply chain - clients, suppliers and competitors. There are examples from other transport sectors we could learn from when it comes to a production line approach.

Vision 2030

Vision 2030 is the kind of industry-wide call to arms that I believe is needed. It is becoming central to our agenda and philosophy at Amey.

Without doubt, every contractor, consultant and supplier has numerous expensive programmes and initiatives to raise performance, health, safety and well-being across the sector. Yet we continue to tackle these challenges on a competitive, piecemeal basis rather than with any mutually beneficial cross-industry approach.

And make no mistake, this really has to be an industry-wide initiative; something big and bold that will truly transform the way that the highways industry operates and delivers its services to the public.

In my view, it is critical that we start the journey to deliver this vision now. It will require the industry to join up and take action. In collaboration - for our common good.

Focused milestones are pivotal

In essence, Vision 2030 is very simple and is based on engaging the supply chain with a range of focused milestones over the next 12 years. Each is designed to embrace appropriate new ideas and technology to:

  • accelerate the introduction of full automation across the asset maintenance process
  • remove the workforce from the live road network
  • deliver step changes in productivity
  • reduce the real cost for construction and maintenance
  • deliver customer focused outcomes
  • create a working environment that attracts and retains far greater diversity into the sector

All simple stuff, of course, but achieving results at scale will mean calling a halt to our world of small, individually motivated initiatives in favour of bigger, industry transforming interventions. It will mean breaking free from the siloes of technology to focus on changing the ‘resist to change’ culture of the sector and the ways in which we operate.

Fundamentally Vision 2030 is about people, systems, processes and communications. Collaboration across the industry is key.

Technology will change everything

That said, embracing technology is a logical place for us to start. Across virtually every other sector of industry, the world is moving on as we embrace digital technologies and the power of data. Yet our flatlining productivity is testament to our failure to invest in new ideas. It really is too easy for us to stick to the status quo and do what we always do, in the ways that we have always done it.

We have to change. Not least since new technology and techniques are already starting to overwhelm us with the art of the possible. Whether it is via the ability of blockchain to transform our data management, the use of crowd-sourced data to manage pothole repairs or the application of drones to inspect and monitor asset performance, we have a massive opportunity.

Automation will enhance safety and promote diversity

We work in a people centric business. It cannot be right, therefore, that we still ask our workforce to operate on a live carriageway while fully-loaded HGVs thunder past. Nor can it be right that we consciously or unconsciously discourage anyone – men or women - from employment in the sector by failing to remove or at least mechanise manual tasks.

Automation is critical and, as the lead for equality and diversity across Amey, I see this as a massive opportunity. We have an ageing, largely white, male workforce and the use of technology means that we can accelerate the change towards a more diverse and more productive future. Automation means this sector becomes attractive to a broader range of employees in the future.

There are many examples of success. Our work on the Forth crossings, for example, has pioneered the use of drones and lasers, overlaid on the asset databases, to inspect the structure using VR removing the need to step on to the carriageway or the structure itself. Publicly available data, including satellite imagery, is allowing us to monitor, in near real time, carriageway defects.  

Remote controlled devices

Even routine activities can be transformed. The use of remote controlled grass cutting on our highway maintenance projects not only takes workers away from the live carriageway but also enables different types of workers to be brought into the team. No longer is it simply about strength and the ability to man-handle machines. Now it is all about the ability to plan, deploy and optimise the use of the equipment. We have been using robotic lawnmowers and believe that they will have a major role in the future.

Technology gives us the opportunity to drive this culture shift across the sector. It is a culture shift that underpins not only greater efficiency but also a step change in health, safety and well-being to enable a workforce transformation to engage the next generation.

And make no mistake, this is not about robots taking jobs. It is about creating new, different opportunities for wider pool of talent.

Are we happy to have accidents?

The problem is that nobody is really asking the right question – asking what are we really trying to achieve with our numerous and piecemeal initiatives. Who is actually leading the change?

Are we happy, for example, to accept that we have accidents? Too often we only start the process of change after a fatality reminds us that there are better ways to operate. That, in my book, is not an acceptable way to progress.

For example in Amey, we have had four Impact Protection Vehicle (IPV) strikes in the last 12 months – each one resulting in injuries to one of my team. To achieve a step-change in approach, we have been working with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, Highways England and other industry bodies to develop a remotely operated system to install lane closure protection.

Joining up numerous initiatives

Now, we all know how much money we spend on a multitude of vital yet isolated initiatives such as this one in our quest to protect workers, boost health and wellbeing, increase efficiency and deliver more customer value. Vision 2030 simply tries to join all this good work up.

Of course, delivering this Vision will also mean changing current convention and standards. The reality is that much of our current process is driven by a rake of regulations and best practice code that are laid down by clients and agencies with the best of intentions. But things change. New technologies and new ideas emerge and we have to be brave enough to accept change and sufficiently flexible and fleet of foot to take advantage. Pace of change in the highways sector could have been measured in years. We need to make it months.

We have to put in place systems that positively encourage the industry to embrace innovation and new techniques – not grind them down with five year proving trials followed by three-year pilot schemes.

Combining resources will hasten change

The solutions have to start with the industry, from clients down through the entire supply chain, being more open to new ideas and more collaborative – as opposed to competitive – when it comes to transforming the way we all operate.  Imagine the power of all those thousands of pounds, plus annual investments joined up to drive change across the sector.

Across the highways industry I believe there is an understanding that change is required and that we need to set ourselves some big targets to help break out of the norm. This is not something we can do overnight. But it is something we can achieve over time by 2030 – provided we work together and provided we start today.