Digital transformation on Heathrow's Cargo Tunnel 2.0 project

20 Jun 23

The use of digital technologies is a key pillar of Heathrow’s Cargo Tunnel 2.0 project, senior project manager Ajoy Dua told GIRI members as he provided an update on the project. In combination with collaboration, a DfMA approach, and application of industry best-practice principles, technology has helped contribute to reductions in cost, schedule and risk and improvements in quality and health and safety outcomes. 

The cargo tunnel is an 870m-long, critical subsurface link between Heathrow’s central terminal area and Terminal 4. The current scheme involves a major overhaul to refurbish the tunnel to bring it in line with modern standards. Work can only take place between 9pm and 5am and the tunnel must be returned to full service every morning. 

For more information about the background and first stages of the project, see our report on Ajoy’s initial presentation in 2022.

“Our critical success factors are risk reduction, safe delivery, value for money, and minimal operational impact,” said Ajoy. “This is a very complex project technically. We have a limited working window, a live operational interface, a high degree of risk, and a large number of logistical constraints. But with those challenges come opportunities. How do we maximise the investment we have already made? How do we optimise the design? Where do we innovate? We recognised that we needed to do this project differently.” 

Heathrow adopted a three-point strategy: digital transformation, building a collaborative culture, and adopting a design for manufacturing and assembly approach. By 2021, the project had reached RIBA stage 3, with a full federated BIM model, supply chain coordination and clash detection carried out. “We started on site in January 2022, with a full RIBA stage 4 model, an established ‘design close calls’ process, and early enabling works identified so we could start trying to de-risk the project and get started with the production of our prototype modules.”

Digital technologies have been in use all the way through. For example, Ajoy touched on the use of BIM and digital techniques to engage with stakeholders and drive timely decision making. “It is a short step from taking a federated model to creating 3D renders that have a wider appeal to our stakeholder community. We also use QR codes to drop the user into various points in the model where they have a 360° view on their phone, and we have dipped our toe in 4D. If you want to shut a road at Heathrow, or get permission for a crane lift, you need massive consultations. If we can articulate our proposals visually, this is very powerful for securing the relevant permissions.”

The project created a full build sequence in 4D, initially as a stakeholder presentation. “It was so successful that it has become part of our site induction. And a time lapse camera means we can demonstrate our progress to stakeholders.” 

Technology has also been able to resolve some of the project’s design close calls, said Ajoy. “We had multiple constraints on the design of a hydrant valve chamber. We were able to design and demo it in a 3D environment and secure the necessary approvals prior to manufacture, saving time and the cost of on-site remediation works.”

The tunnel modules are being built in a factory environment, to suit the project’s DfMA approach. “One of the issues at Heathrow is getting permission for staff to be on site, so if we can move some of that work elsewhere, we save a lot of time and cost. So, for example, we had pre-cast transformer rooms made off-site. These went up in three days. Same with switch rooms. Then our fire suppression pump rooms were installed in one day. All of which comes with the inherent quality improvement of working in a factory environment, as well as the cost and carbon savings.”

Not all technologies are useful in a tunnel environment, said Ajoy, including AR, VR and drones, but he touched on those that were more successful, including virtual attendance at factory acceptance tests, 4D visualisation and planning, and the use of autonomous equipment such as an automated pallet truck, and ‘Dave’ the robotic dog. Outcomes are backing up the importance of these tools, he said.

The project is also using a DfMA dashboard to keep track of all the modules in real time and get ahead of any storage and logistics problems. The dashboard enables tracking of modules by percentage complete and KPI and can identify trends in productivity. “We are keen to get this dataset in place and this is something we are currently working on,” he explained.

In conclusion, Ajoy said the project has seen real power in early and collaborative decision making and the use of digital technologies to engage with stakeholders and facilitate early decisions. “The project has not been without challenges, but in terms of delivery outcomes, we have seen productivity enhancements through the use of DfMA and we are moving towards pre-determined standardised tasks. We also have a fantastic project safety record and have been effective at coordinating the supply chain.”

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