National Grid employees looking at data screens in a Gas National Control Centre office

BIM begins to blossom

Business Information Modelling (BIM) takes the way National Grid designs, builds and manages construction projects into a new dimension. Paul Lee, Investment Scheme Manager in Gas Transmission, explains how it’s taking seed across the business.

Every successful business needs to manage its assets well, and Gas Transmission is no exception. Business Information Modelling, or BIM, is one of the most important innovations in our business for improving the way we do this.

It’s a major step change in how we manage construction projects: a move away from traditional 2D CAD drawings to more easily visualised 3D designs. But it goes beyond the limits of a simple software solution, providing access to data-rich, intelligent 3D models, which contain all the critical data about an asset. We can use these to improve the way we manage them throughout their lifetime, saving cost and carbon every step of the way.

We’ve been working on BIM for several years. Firstly, through two Network Innovation Allowance-funded projects, where we investigated the benefits that BIM could have on our business. We’re now applying what we learned to more than 50 gas projects and are already saving the business millions of pounds.

Laser quest

Let’s start with laser scanning. We trialled the technique as a smarter way of surveying construction sites and have now used it on two compressor projects in Huntingdon and Peterborough, as well as on Feeder 9, which sees us tunnelling under the Humber to install a new 5km section of gas pipework.

Laser scanning, where we use laser beams to rapidly capture every aspect of a location, has provided us with an accurate picture of all these sites, reducing the ambiguity of our records and reducing the need for repeat visits to potentially hazardous environments.

Having accurate records brings clear benefits at the front end of a project. For example, engineers and builders have fewer technical queries and requests for information because they know exactly what’s there. This results in fewer delays.

We took the technique even further on a project in Bacton, using it to capture exactly what was being built on the site for the first time. This took a third of the time of more traditional methods, delivering significant cost savings.

Our work at Bacton showed laser scanning delivers benefits at the back end of a project too. By capturing records quicker, we were able to close the project down faster, which reduced our overheads. It’s also given us an accurate record of the installation, which means any further work on the site will be delivered safer, faster and cheaper.

We’re really seeing BIM naturally take seed across our business.

- Paul Lee, Investment Scheme Manager in Gas Transmission

From dots to details

We’re now taking laser scanning into another dimension by developing a system that turns what we find in these scans into more detailed 3D models. Currently, when we laser scan a site, it really just provides millions and billions of dots. So when you zoom in, you lose exactly what you’re looking at.

What we’re doing now is building a library that will automatically recognise the shapes of components picked up by the scan – a valve, fence or building for example. It’s semi-automated, so it will suggest a component and a designer can then simply drop that image in. This will reduce the time it takes to design a 3D model of a site by at least 40%. When we’re talking about our business, which has around 650 sites, cost savings will really add up.

Sharing this data as we develop it is really important. Every discovery or step forward is shared with our Data and Technology team and made available free to designers so they can help us drive down our investment costs without delay.

Another area where BIM excels is its ability to help people visualise a project. Suppliers and stakeholders see our design intent more clearly – and we all see the benefit.

On Feeder 9, for example, we issued 3D models to suppliers during a tender event. It’s a complex project, but through helping them visualise all sorts of design elements – such as the tunnel length and profile – we estimate that this Early Contractor Involvement had a net benefit of around £3m.

Powerful planning tool

We also used BIM at a national consent hearing. It gave us the tools to explain clearly what the job was and why we believed the site needed to be as big as it did. Having 3D models to hand made it much simpler to demonstrate how robust our plans were and to justify our design decisions.

BIM also came to the fore when Natural England raised concerns over how Feeder 9 might affect light in the area and how this could impact the bird population. The technology enabled us to create enhanced models that relieved their concerns, without them having to put in a formal objection, reducing potential delays.

Several investment panel reviews have demonstrated that the use of BIM chopped £3m across our Peterborough and Huntingdon projects, so the numbers are already pretty powerful.

It’s not just the large multi-million pound projects that are profiting from BIM. We’ve just completed a best practice guide which lays out the case for applying BIM on smaller sites, meaning BIM can flourish across every scale of National Grid project.

While there’s still some way to go, we’re seeing BIM naturally take seed across our business. It’s my job now to work out where we can achieve more quick wins, what our medium and long-term objectives should be – and how we can embed those into our business in both gas and electricity.