Analysis

HS2’s Dr Sonia Zahiroddiny: 'Digital is key to our success'

4 January 2021

As head of digital engineering at HS2 Ltd, Dr Sonia Zahiroddiny is responsible for driving BIM and further digital processes through the mega-project, enabling not only its design and construction, but also its operation. BIM+ grabbed 30 minutes of her time to find out more.

Whatever the detractors might think of its very concept, HS2 is an ambitious project – and digital engineering is at the heart of it.

The project’s numbers are dizzying: 343 miles of railway track, 45 miles of tunnels, 37 miles of viaducts, 119 miles of cutting, 120 miles of embankment and 30,000 people working on it.

Among those 30,000 is Dr Sonia Zahiroddiny, and, as HS2 Ltd’s head of digital engineering, it’s her task to drive BIM and beyond through the project. Whatever legacies the mega-project leaves behind when complete, the demonstration of the benefits that digital engineering can bring will be to the fore.

We find that people engage when they see the value of digital or BIM, or how the wider digital landscape can add to their day-to-day jobs.– Dr Sonia Zahiroddiny

“It is one of our ambitions to make sure we can leave that legacy. Professor Andrew McNaughton, who at the time was our technical director, used to say that BIM is the lifeblood of HS2. And it has truly been seen that way from day one,” she states with evident passion. “But since then, the thinking has matured, and we have rebranded the terminology or the way that BIM is perceived to become more than just 3D modelling, to become digital engineering. And the thinking is still maturing and is still evolving.”

Dr Zahiroddiny describes a lot of the digital developments being undertaken on HS2 as “fairly alien to the rail sector” and notes that a lot of it is “not necessarily seen or implemented as business as usual”. How is she addressing that challenge?

“It’s effectively a change programme, and with any change programme, there can be huge cultural and in some cases commercial barriers to overcome. So with the scale and complexity of HS2, this is a massive undertaking. But I think it is encouraging to see the willingness of both HS2 employees and our supply chain to learn and understand the benefits,” she says.

“We find that people engage when they see the value of digital or BIM, or how the wider digital landscape can add to their day-to-day jobs. To bring people into the [digital] fold, you've got to make sure the messaging is simple. I wouldn’t say it’s complex, but this is a complicated topic and it’s got to help them in their day job and relate to them. They're interested in knowing how does this make my job easier?

“So far, we've done a lot of internal briefing sessions, hands-on training. We’ve embedded champions within our delivery areas to make sure that the interface with our contractors is there and that they have a point of contact and a point of escalation.

“We’ve drawn up use cases, case studies and personas to try to put context around digital engineering. So it's almost a day in the life of someone. So if I'm a project manager, what is [digital engineering] to me? By adopting a wider change approach, combined with upskilling, we’re really hoping that we can resolve or overcome some of those barriers.”

Improving the supply chain's digital skills

The mention of ‘upskilling’ leads Dr Zahiroddiny to reflect on HS2’s digital engineering upskilling platform, relaunched after further developments in October 2020.

It provides free-to-access e-learning and resources to the supply chain. There were 11 e-learning courses available as this issue went to press, and they range from developing a BIM execution plan, via BIM documentation and roles and responsibilities, to understanding HS2’s information delivery cycle.

The platform also includes a jargon buster.

She adds: “I’m happy that we have relaunched our platform. We launched it in 2016, but that was a minimum viable product at the time. It clarifies what our strategy and targets are, our implementation methods and what that means to contractors.

“The portal is an engaging and innovative learning platform, and we will continue to update it with more courses. There is an appetite out there for people to want to improve or increase their digital maturity.”

The journey to a digital twin

Another digital highlight of HS2 so far is the visualisation hub. Dr Zahiroddiny describes the hub as “the first of its kind, a fairly unique platform, which has never been used on previous major projects”.

The hub was designed by a consortium led by PCSG, the leading digital built environment consultancy that was recently bought by Bentley Systems.

“The visualisation hub brings our vision for a virtual railway to life, and will form the basis of our digital twin,” she says.

 

There’s collaboration and innovative thinking both ways: tier one contractors are responding to our requirements, but at the same time, they're coming back and saying ‘we can go over and above’.– Dr Sonia Zahiroddiny

“With the scale and the complexity of HS2, we are producing huge amounts of data – millions of records, terabytes of data. And currently these various data sets are coming from our contractors in various formats, and are stored, managed and interrogated in a number of very specialist systems across the organisation.

“Ultimately the visualisation hub is a web-based platform that acts as a ‘top hat’. It's basically an integration platform that brings all of these data sets together, and thus provides us with multiple views of the railway as it’s being planned and designed and constructed. And it really helps us to remove some of the complexity we're currently facing in accessing and analysing some of this data.”

She continues: “The hub is the convergence of GIS and 3D modelling, CAD, BIM and asset information, because it brings all of these various elements together. But it also pulls in some of the project controls data (cost data and some of the health and safety incident data), and, once we have our data-streaming platform stood up, some of the telemetric data as well as some of the real-time data.

“The hub should, by default, make it simpler and quicker to find the data, to understand the situation or context of the data. So you can look for an asset, know where it's located, see all the graphical representations of it, see all the related documentation, see how much we forecasted, and see how much the actual spend is. It just makes it much easier for you to view, interrogate and analyse the data in a single, unified platform.”

Delivering tangible benefits now

Dr Zahiroddiny highlights some further benefits of digital engineering: “Our contractors are already reporting that the use of 5D modelling and quantity take-offs have increased consistency and standardised the process of creation of design. And this has resulted in increased productivity: they’re reporting a reduction in man hours of up to 50% to 60% across their stages of the programme.

“Another example is extensive use of 4D modelling in construction sequencing. Close integration with the project controls team has enabled improved visual identification of areas of risk, allowing us to mitigate some of these risks before we start construction – and that's resulted in roughly 40 days of time savings.”

She thinks there’s a two-way exchange of intelligence and experience happening between HS2 and its tier one contractors: “There’s collaboration and innovative thinking both ways: they're responding to our requirements, but at the same time, they're coming back and saying ‘we can go over and above’, or ‘this is what we can do’, or ‘these are some of the benefits we are seeing’. It has been a joint effort.”

Diversity of skills

Included in that joint effort is Dr Zahiroddiny’s 20-plus team: a team with a mixture of both construction and non-construction backgrounds.

She explains: “I'm not an engineer by profession myself – I come from a computer sciences background. The team come from learning and development, or psychology, or data architecture and data sciences: these are all the sorts of skills that you don’t typically associate with digital engineering or rail infrastructure more broadly. But within the CAD and GIS areas, the majority of them have been within the rail sector for a while.”

Warming to her theme, she adds: “I’ve really tried to look outwards and say, ‘Look, if you’re really going to push beyond the mandate and become more digitally enabled, then that goes beyond just the 3D models – they're just nice 3D pictures, and there's a lot more involved.

“And therefore it does require a broad sets of skills, for example, enterprise architects, or data architects or process managers who understand how to do process mapping who will help us re-engineer some of the old school ways of doing things. So the fresh perspective that this diverse range of people have brought in is a fresh eye on things, and they have been rightly challenging some of the ways we have been doing things.”

Aside from the visualisation hub and the upskilling platform, she emphasises her team’s greatest success: “Raising the profile around the importance of data and digital: that's been a huge undertaking. And it's been driven both bottom up and top down.”

Concentrating on the future, she reiterates that digital engineering is key to HS2: “Talking about the digital twin, we're not only going to use it during design and construction, and potentially testing and commissioning, to have this holistic view of the railway to validate and verify that it actually meets all of our requirements and we can operate it, but we’re also leaving something for our end-user, the state operator, to take and run with. It's at the heart of our strategy.”

Balfour Beatty Vinci JV's 4D mission room

Diversity of skills

Included in that joint effort is Dr Zahiroddiny’s 20-plus team: a team with a mixture of both construction and non-construction backgrounds.

She explains: “I'm not an engineer by profession myself – I come from a computer sciences background. The team come from learning and development, or psychology, or data architecture and data sciences: these are all the sorts of skills that you don’t typically associate with digital engineering or rail infrastructure more broadly. But within the CAD and GIS areas, the majority of them have been within the rail sector for a while.”

Warming to her theme, she adds: “I’ve really tried to look outwards and say, ‘Look, if you’re really going to push beyond the mandate and become more digitally enabled, then that goes beyond just the 3D models – they're just nice 3D pictures, and there's a lot more involved.

“And therefore it does require a broad sets of skills, for example, enterprise architects, or data architects or process managers who understand how to do process mapping who will help us re-engineer some of the old school ways of doing things. So the fresh perspective that this diverse range of people have brought in is a fresh eye on things, and they have been rightly challenging some of the ways we have been doing things.”

Aside from the visualisation hub and the upskilling platform, she emphasises her team’s greatest success: “Raising the profile around the importance of data and digital: that's been a huge undertaking. And it's been driven both bottom up and top down.”

Concentrating on the future, she reiterates that digital engineering is key to HS2: “Talking about the digital twin, we're not only going to use it during design and construction, and potentially testing and commissioning, to have this holistic view of the railway to validate and verify that it actually meets all of our requirements and we can operate it, but we’re also leaving something for our end-user, the state operator, to take and run with. It's at the heart of our strategy.”