Matt Blackwell enjoyed roles with Tom Walkinshaw Racing and the computer graphics pioneer, SGI, before entering the construction sector.
He recently joined PCSG as a Client Project Manager.  We sat down to chat robotics, racing and mega rail projects….
Q. Your early career included two years at SGI, the pioneering US computer graphics group – chilled California living?

A. Sadly not. I was based in the UK with a commute to Reading every day.

SGI was just past its heyday when I joined. It was a company I had always been in awe of – people would come to them and say, “Can you make us a computer that can make a molten metal Terminator?” and they’d make it.

When I joined, it was much more about automotive, simulation, manufacturing and aerospace – so it taught me not only a lot of technical skills but also a lot about client engagement, delivery on requirements and meeting a brief. It was also my first foray into bid-writing and proposals.

Q. You also spent time with Tom Walkinshaw Racing -a big name in the motor raicng world. One to tell the children about?

A. Yes, it was a Tier 1 automotive supplier, but with a strong racing pedigree; they designed and engineered Jaguar’s dominance at Le Mans, for example. The owner, Tom Walkinshaw, also owned the Arrows Formula 1 team.

I was responsible for maintaining and developing the PLM system (electronic data management software), managing CAD data and associated documents for the production of new car models and tailoring the system according to specific customer requirements.

I had been supporting TWR as an SGI client, so I knew them well.

Q: A mobile pop tart toaster was among your successes as a young man? Tell us more..

A. It was while I was studying 3D Design for my BA. I produced a Pop Tarts toaster that you could plug into a car’s cigarette lighter, so that you could cook it on the go and then drip jam at molten lava temperature all over your hands whilst driving. Looking back on it, probably not the most sensible (or safest!) idea!

I studied materials science, design history, metalwork, woodwork, plastics….that kind of thing. It was a very ‘hands-on’ degree doing both design and manufacture. I had always enjoyed art and design at school and thought that I wanted to do it – although I didn’t know what, exactly – as a career. I made things like animated litter bins to encourage kids to dispose of litter properly, a transparent radio in the shape of wasp (antennae for volume controls, metal legs as the aerial) and cast aluminium desk lamps.

I realised whilst on my degree that I was much more aligned to graphic design rather than product; I used the early Macs, the original version of Photoshop, Illustrator and landed my first job doing graphic, not product, design, which led into 3D modelling.

Q. You entered the construction sector in May 2003 with a role at Laing O’Rourke. What was the status of ‘digital’ within construction at that stage?

A. I think there was a realisation that it needed to change, and there were initiatives like Avanti, the precursor to BS1192:2007, underway, looking at information structure, change management, design coordination, etc. My first impressions were “Wow, this is behind!”.

I joined to lead modelling on Terminal 5. We were really pushing what could be done – driven both by Laing O’Rourke’s vision at the time and an intelligent client in BAA. We knew that T5 had to be delivered differently – it was a massive construction site but there was no space for anything. We focused on ‘just in time’ delivery, Lean and productivity – with a realisation that productivity was the key to delivery, not ‘over-promising and under-delivering’ but acting on what was said. This was all underpinned by parametric 3D modelling of all the steel reinforcement.

Q. You spent 13 years at Costain and were responsible for developing the company’s BIM strategy. How big a challenge did that present?

A. I always found the fact that BIM was ‘new’ slightly strange as I’d been doing it, albeit under a different name of ‘product lifecycle management’, for years. As with anything perceived to be new or different the biggest challenge was the people – winning people over, convincing them that this alien way of working was beneficial, that it would save money, improve quality, enhance safety and provide certainty of delivery. It took time, it took a lot of patience but creating the processes, writing the bid responses to explain how we implement BIM on site and ultimately getting to the point of acceptance and business as usual, was extremely rewarding.

Q. You also led the introduction of GIS into the group’s offering. Why was this deemed important and what benefits did it bring to the organisation and to the clients you supported?

A. The first response from most people was “not another acronym!”. GIS was something I really grew to be interested in from the ‘what can it tell me’ perspective, rather than just seeing something on a map. People would always ask “Why do we need it” and the response would usually be “Well, don’t you want to know where the thing you’re building actually is?”. You need location to give context.

We soon found that GIS was much more rapidly accepted, business-wide, than say BIM – because I think it was so much more familiar and accessible (everybody uses a satnav..). We soon had all departments using it for various different things and it became a go-to source of information that everybody could use without relying on a specialist.

Q. How important has the establishment of the Government’s Geospatial Commission been?

A. It makes a statement and sets out a clear strategy for why geospatial data is important and how it can be used, whilst making it relevant to all – whether that be in terms of where new housing is built, using location data to enable connected autonomous vehicles, or even the spread of disease. Government backing will always drive adoption and direction and by setting out the strategy and intent it clearly demonstrates the value of location data in terms of economic growth and recovery, in particular in light of the last 18 months.

Q. What is the reality out on the ground of digital delivery? Are digital techniques and processes being fully embedded or have we a way to go?

A. It varies from project to project. In some instances the various digital ‘artefacts’ are consistently delivered (for example, laser scanning for survey activities and as-built verification) but not fully embedded. There is a lot of great work, but it is still done in many silos and pockets of excellence – data management is getting there (but still not always implemented to a BS1192/ISO19650 standard) but in many cases data quality needs to be drastically improved. Consistency and alignment of work breakdown and cost breakdown structures is starting to happen, enabling much greater insights into the day-to-day running of a project (for example, automated alignment of 3D components to plan and cost tasks) but is still some way off becoming the norm.

Q. Which major project to date has really shown us what is possible within a digital environment?

A. Typically it’s the mega-projects; HS2 and Thames Tideway stand out for me, in particular for the use of mechanisms like i3P, building on the shared innovation practices borne out of Crossrail’s Innovate18 programme. There were some fantastic initiatives that came through collaborative approaches and I believe joint ventures in particular lead to some great new ways of working, whether that be the partner companies pushing each other harder or from greater levels of sharing best practice and learning.

I’ve seen a lot of good ideas form through strong contractor relationships, taken from one project and enhanced on another then adopted by others on their own contracts.

HS2 really stands out for the sheer amount of asset management, the integration between geospatial and BIM, the quantity (and carbon) take-offs from the model, the use of digital surveying techniques (whether that be photogrammetry from drones/phones or laser scanning), the dashboards that provide performance insights – but I still look back at Terminal 5 as a real shining light, too.

Q. Balfour Beatty has predicted a human-free construction site by 2050 – is that where we are headed?

A. I can certainly see it being 90% human-free. Advances in technology, in particular robotics, are moving on so rapidly. One only has to look at the use of the Boston Dynamics’ robots for surveys (or something more simplistic, like drones), exo-skeletons to aid with lifting operations beyond the possibilities of humans, automated paving, 3D printing concrete robots, self-driving plant – all of these are happening now and will only become more prevalent. They do all currently require human intervention, however, and I do wonder what will happen when a member of the public wants to make a complaint to a robot about noise from site, so perhaps the ‘personable’ public liaison jobs etc. may still need that human touch. But 29 years is a long time in technology!

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