Trimble Technology Lab tipped to give students head start

EDINBURGH Napier University has officially opened its expanded Trimble Technology Lab at its Merchiston Campus in the south west of the capital.

Project Scotland was given an exclusive tour of the extensive facilities by academics and students, who explained how the partnership with Trimble will help meet carbon targets through technological developments in the transition to more timber and offsite construction solutions.

The lab first launched four years ago, after California-headquartered Trimble struck a partnership with Edinburgh Napier following the acquirement of a number of construction tech firms which had worked with the university over the years. Trimble specialises in technology aimed at enabling projects to be carried out ‘more precisely and accurately’ with it ‘concentrated on helping the world work better’.

The expanded lab has allowed for increased teaching space, which includes sprawling computer facilities kitted out with Trimble’s technology. Artistic images of different timber designs feature on the walls, as a nod to Edinburgh Napier’s heritage and ongoing work to help focus Trimble technology towards timber and offsite builds.

Featured in the lab are computer-based systems which allow for embodied carbon calculations, automation of structural analysis, remote project management, and other technologies focused on 3D building design, digital fabrication, and the sustainable built environment. Various physical technology is also on offer, including the impressive HoloLens 2. The hardhat allows for mixed reality via its built-in lens, which enables the design of projects to be overlaid into the real world and viewed in real-time, as well live measurements to be taken using hand movements, and to-do lists virtually marked on areas of sites.

Dr Kenny Leitch, head of Civil, Transportation, and Environmental Engineering at Edinburgh Napier University, told Project Scotland it is important that the learning institute embraces such technology. “By upskilling our students in its use they will have an advantage over other graduates once they go out into industry,” he explained.

Professor Robert Hairstans, head of the Centre for Offsite Construction + Innovative Structures at Edinburgh Napier, revealed that being skilled in such technology allows students to work – with supervision – on live projects, which he said sees them graduate with experience that ‘equates to someone who has been working in the sector for a year’.

A recent example was the build of learning pods made from homegrown mass timber at Fettes College in Edinburgh, which was an Innovate UK-funded ‘Transforming Timber’ project output led by BE-ST with Ecosystems Technology as the commercial accelerator. Featuring the UK’s first breathable roof system, the students were involved with design, fabrication, and construction of the facilities and used Trimble technology to install live censors which will monitor moisture movement and also CO2 build up, heat, and humidity in the learning pods.

With the location of the pods sitting above crucial utility infrastructure – including electricity feeding a nearby hospital – ensuring correct positioning of the structures’ piles was crucial, with then postgraduate student, Bartosz Belch, using a range of Trimble technology to locate the infrastructure, allowing for a JCB excavator to dig down safely.

“I see students getting excited about this technology… and they’re getting to use it in real world projects,” Dr Andrew Livingstone, School of Engineering and the Built Environment lecturer and Trimble Lab lead, said. “Before, we were teaching software that was unique to universities and wasn’t used in industry. Now once it comes to students leaving university, they have already used the hardware and software needed in industry – and that’s a huge benefit going into employment.”

Professor Hairstans explained that the focus towards sustainability in construction has moved ‘significantly’ over the last decade, with much of their early work leading up to the partnership with Trimble being around convincing industry to use the technology. Now, he said, industry is very much technologically focused.

“Globally there is a need to move towards more industrialised and offsite approaches, and indeed a more biogenic timber-based response,” Professor Hairstans added, before explaining that more design for manufacture and assembly will be needed, which requires a focus on software which can ‘essentially control’ machinery in factories through mechanisation and automation.

“The whole sustainability and carbon debate points squarely towards using more biogenic approaches, such as timber,” he added. “Therefore, what we’ve been doing is only going to accelerate creating change in industry.”

The new facility played host to the inaugural Trimble Technology Lab Conference in June, with over 50 leading construction, geospatial, and natural resources academics from Trimble labs around the world visiting the facility. A host of Edinburgh Napier students presented their innovations to attendees, including undergraduate student, Annie Fennell, and Bartosz who now holds a research role at the university.

The pair revealed they were approached by members of Trimble’s team after their presentations, with the firm showing a ‘genuine interest’ in their innovative use of the technology – particularly because it’s being used in the real world rather than just a classroom.

“One of the questions at the end was: ‘Where are they with their studies?’ because what they’re presenting is based on how you would perform in practice,” Professor Hairstans said. “That’s because software and digitisation can connect us better with industry, so they can work on live projects as part of their education and research which is tied to actual delivery (of real projects).”