/Blog: TBM Software Reduces Labor and Improves Safety and Efficiency

As the tunnel boring machine (TBM) moves forward, internal and external engineering teams record mechanical, productivity, quality, and safety information from numerous sensors, field observations and measurements. In addition, the TBM generates data every second from a plethora of sensors and gauges measuring everything from pressure to conveyor volumes. These readings and the quality information captured remain as raw data until engineers sit down to aggregate the information and disseminate it into a tangible and reportable form. This process can be onerous, taking time and bandwidth away from valuable, highly trained staff. It also offers a lag in reporting that can exacerbate operational and safety issues.

“The collected data is vital to the success of the project. It depends on the size of the operation, but we’ve experienced projects that have a significant number of qualified engineers who spend a good portion of the day reading and deciphering the information. That can be expensive,” said Mike Rispin, Vice President of Tunneling at Strata Worldwide. “In a time when the number of tunnel projects are increasing and the demand for qualified engineers is becoming more competitive, contractors are seeking a more efficient and cost-effective way to improve operations with less staff.”

Improving TBM Data Aggregation

StrataConnect’s TunnelLINK by Binni is the first software that is specifically designed to automate the process of aggregation, collation, and distribution of data from every aspect of the tunneling operations. It is made for the tunneling contractor by tunneling experts.

The SaaS (Software as a Service) product allows stakeholders to see the status of every aspect of the project, from TBM data to team productivity, in easy-to-understand customizable dashboards and reports nearly instantaneously. TunnelLINK is on both mobile and desktop, used anywhere a data connection is available.

“This is not just a powerful operations software, it can also be a bridge of trust and respect between the owner and the contractor(s),” said Rispin.

How Does TunnelLINK Benefit a Tunneling Project?

Since tunneling projects are often fixed bid, contractors need to focus on maximizing the bottom line. They do this by increasing efficiency, reducing the amount of unscheduled downtime, keeping a close eye on staff productivity, monitoring safety, and reducing non-compliances. These factors raise the cost of operation, which directly impacts the bottom line.

The cloud-based TunnelLINK software helps stakeholders see the full scope of the operation and mitigate costly issues. It can receive time-stamped data from:

  • TBM sensors – Each sensor is connected and directly feeds into the dashboards.
  • Surface sensors – Collaborating TBM sensor information instantaneously with geotechnical sensor information offers greater safety and faster reaction times to potential dangers.
  • Environmental monitors – Further improve safety by providing real-time gas and dust levels.
  • Personnel and Asset Tracking– In collaboration with StrataConnect tracking, personnel and equipment can be tracked inside and outside of the tunnel and locations visualized alongside the other data aggregated in TunnelLINK to ensure safe operations
  • Conveyor sensors – Monitors the volume and weight of the extracted material and the overall operation of the conveyor system.
  • Logistical ordering and supply data – Perhaps one of the top reasons for unscheduled downtime, it allows operators to get ahead of supply issues.
  • Supervisor progress reporting – A lot of information requires manual entry and aggregation, but the customizable application makes it easy to monitor productivity and compliance in real time. This can be done from a phone or tablet.

TunnelLINK then normalizes and displays data in a form that is quickly readable, transmitting it to the user dashboards using established communication methods underground such as those available from StrataConnect. With dashboard customization and fast reporting, the outcomes can be presented in visual forms that allow for better informed and speedier decision making.

Tunneling Engineer Acquisition and Retention

According to Alejandro Gomez, engineer and co-founder of Binni, tunneling engineers are well-trained and specialized individuals who are in high demand, which makes them expensive to hire and retain. “Every hour an engineer is stuck performing repetitive administrative duties is money lost,” Gomez explained. “Engineers don’t want to be behind a desk under piles of paper. Imagine if a contractor can guarantee prospective engineers will be able to do what they love every day. Not only is that a great recruitment tool, it’s also an excellent retention tool.”

TunnelLINK software saves more than 20 engineering hours per week on a typical project. This element alone makes the software a paying proposition, allowing the return on investment (ROI) – in some cases – to span a fraction of the project timeline.

“The larger the project, the faster the ROI,” Gomez said. “The customizable software is easily scaled to the scope of the project, so with little effort, the number of engineer hours needed for data aggregation and reporting reduces proportionally to the decrease in the demand for administrative duties.”

Tunneling Smarter with Fewer Meetings

Different teams work on specific parts of the operation. Teams can interface from their current location while looking at the same data on their mobile devices. They can interpret the data and find causal or complementary outcomes without the need for leaving the worksite to attend meetings.

“Staff work internally and externally and, in some cases, on different sites. Even linking by video from an office takes traversing the tunnel, walking up and down flights of scaffolding, and preparation,” Wes Morrison, co-founder of Binni, pointed out. “By reducing the number of meetings and making those meetings more productive, TunnelLINK further improves the efficiency and lowers the cost of operation for the project.”

Departmental continuity and communication are important, so the software will certainly not replace all meetings, but will make them more efficient. TunnelLINK allows supervisors to create “big picture” graphic reports, but if they need to drill down, it offers a granular view of departmental info that is already categorized and at the fingertips of all stakeholders. This way, the staff is working from a place of continuity.

The dashboards’ ease of use and ability to provide calculated insights leaves raw data less open to interpretation. Eliminating minutiae gives teams and supervisors more space to make decisions and seek agreement.

Workplace Safety and Real-Time Troubleshooting

Throughout the operation, all parties are seeing information in real-time which enables them to identify an issue and quickly prevent it from propagating further. Whether it's stopping the wrong ring from being installed or correcting face pressures to avert ground settlement, these decisions can be made confidently based on solid data.

Tunneling Compliance

Contractors must work under the strict confines of their permits and government regulations. Workplace safety and environmental safety inspectors are generally from separate entities testing different parts of the operation, from air quality to equipment maintenance. In many cases, government contracts may also have their own set of rules and regulations, along with assigned auditors, that scrutinize the project. Good-faith relations with these individuals avoid violations, fines, and forced downtime.

Training and Support

“In our experience, after initial setup, engineers and knowledgeable stakeholders understand this software within minutes of orientation,” said Gomez. “Once they sit down and use it, they realize just how powerful it is and start to visualize how to customize it and integrate it into the workflow of their operations.”

Customer service and the user experience are two aspects that are baked into the creation of TunnelLINK. Binni offers expert and patient support for all Strata’s software customers. With an eye on digital security and striving to constantly improve the software, customers will get smooth and well-tested updates on their mobile and desktop portals with little-to-no disruption.

Holistic Tunneling Software

Taking the tunneling industry out of the paper and pencil era is long overdue. Contractors and owners have been looking for a well-designed cloud-based mobile SaaS solution and TunnelLINK is there to fill that need. Working seamlessly with Strata Worldwide’s suite of tunneling products including StrataConnect communications systems and the option of asset and personnel tracking systems, the software offers a holistic view of the entire operation.

“A simple cost-for-value assessment of the software from the labor savings and safety aspects alone are enough to convince any contractor or stakeholder to integrate TunnelLINK into their operations,” Morrison concluded. “And now with our partnership with Strata Worldwide, operators can get a full solution for every aspect of their project from communication to logistics. The next level of tunneling management is here.”