Five questions for Sander Dekker

Bits & beats

In order to continuously improve, smarten and increase sustainability, Heijmans is keeping its finger on the pulse of asphalt, bridges, locks, lighting and offices. Infra Director Sander Dekker explains how we give infrastructure a heartbeat and why that contributes to a healthy living environment.

June 14, 2019

Is Heijmans going digital?

“Oh, we have been digital for a while now. After all, everything is becoming more digital. Objects talk with each other, via their connection to the Internet. We are heading for an Internet of Things in which things communicate with us, get a heartbeat, let us know how they are doing. The same goes for asphalt, locks and bridges!

As a result, our infrastructure and cities are becoming smarter. Thanks to data you know exactly where you can find a parking spot. No more driving around in circles!”

What has led to this development?

“Our infrastructure sets and keeps our country in motion. People, things, materials and information are constantly on the move in our 24-hour economy. This is only possible if our connections are in tip-top shape, work closely together and become smarter.

The coming years, we will be improving and replacing a great part of our infrastructure, as many works are nearing the end of their life expectancy. Digital technology allows us to do that in a better, smarter and more sustainable way than before. This way we are able to apply a more circular approach, carry out maintenance work more efficiently and generate sustainable energy. Think along the lines of platforms to exchange materials, noise barriers with integrated solar panels and ways to warn and re-direct road users in case of heavy traffic.

If we want to create a healthy living environment, we will have to start using our space more efficiently. This means no new unnecessary road traffic and improving the existing traffic flow.”

So, how do we do that?

“By digitalising what we create. Before we apply a kilometre of asphalt, we first build that road digitally. You could say a digital twin brother. By thoroughly testing this road, we limit failure costs. You could compare it to Max Verstappen, who spends a whole week in a simulator before he makes his way around the track.

Afterwards we measure the use and behaviour of what we have created and interpret that data. We do so by installing sensors in roads, tunnels and bridges. Those sensors collect data  to monitor the strain on the infrastructure, which makes it possible to predict life expectancy. This is important to us as a construction company, because the number of our long-term management and maintenance contracts continues to increase.

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We used to work with theoretical models. Now, thanks to monitoring, we know what the actual status is. For instance, many structures were built in the sixties and seventies of the past century. They definitely have some residual capacity left. If our works are no longer a ‘black box’ thanks to data, we will be able to forecast maintenance and life expectancy. And if you use these constructions as well and safely as possible, then you will save money, energy and reduce CO2 emissions.

It is possible to make things even smarter by creating algorithms based on that data: that way, a solar noise barrier will automatically ‘move’ towards the place where it catches the most sunlight.”

“Bringing objects such as bridges and locks to life, letting them talk, that is what data can do”

Can we do this ourselves?

“We are creating room for this digitalisation programme, with regards to both people and means. By now we have our own software engineers, who speak a different language. Their knowledge combined with our building expertise yields a valuable mix. Besides the fact that we enjoy working together like this, it enables us to develop additional services.

Data has become serious business: our client the Directorate-General of Public Works and Water Management uses data from the Princess Beatrix lock to check if there is sufficient capacity to process the multitude of inland vessels. Availability, accessibility and reliability are very important in a transit country such as the Netherlands. Improving all of that through our sensors and the connected software and algorithms, will generate many opportunities. This is new territory to Heijmans as well!

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We love it when experts from other sectors join own teams. Knowledge partners, with similar goals, so that both parties can move forward. That’s why we are now also making our digitalisation move known to the outside world.”

Data is rather intangible. So, how do we go about that?

“Artist and producer LudoWic has sonicated four of our projects. Doing so, he connects data variables to sound characteristics, such as volume or pitch. Data streams from a rail bridge, noise barrier and from asphalt have been incorporated into LudoWics tracks. You discover patterns and rhythms, you are, so to speak, listening to the ‘health’ of infrastructure. LudoWic is turning our data into art!

Under the name Heijmans Bits & Beats he will also be playing these four sonications live this year, for instance, at the Amsterdam Dance Event.”

Sonication of data infra objects
Sonication of data infra objects
Sonication of data infra objects