The time has come for piling and ground construction to go digital

Piling and construction data abstract image

For many years now, ground engineers in the UK have been using the AGS data transfer format to share digital data from ground investigations (GI). It is something that many of us perhaps take for granted, but if you step away from the GI industry you will struggle to find commonly used or accepted standards or formats for data transfer.

I believe that now is the time for piling and other aspects of ground related construction to join the party, and I am pleased to see that this is starting to happen. In this blog I will provide a progress update on development of a standard format for piling data, and at the end I will namecheck some initiatives relating to other ground construction disciplines.

But why do we need to exchange construction data? One of the oddities of working in the ground is that we have a tendency to bury most of what we build! This makes it rather tricky to inspect what we have built, both during construction (quality checks) and during the lifetime of the structure. It becomes a big issue at end of life when knowing ‘what is down there’ becomes important as we decide whether to re-use, remove or avoid (or so we hope!) A common data transfer format will not, by itself, solve these problems. However, many believe that by going digital we greatly increase the chances of:

  • the data being collected in the first place, and
  • the data remaining available in usable form, as part of the legacy BIM/CDM record, for future use.

What standards are already out there?

I will start by looking at existing standards for data. The most obvious starting point is IFC (which stands for Industry Foundation Classes) curated by buildingSMART, which is the international open standard for BIM (ISO 16739-1). This has good traction in the building sector and they are working hard to improve it for infrastructure. However, the focus for IFC has been the design BIM model. It includes piles and other structural elements, but it is not well suited to carrying large amounts of structured supporting data, such as we commonly encounter in the ground sector.

The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) has many standards which are mainly targeted at the GIS world. Some, such as their Observations and Measurements (O&M) standard, look promising, but they do not seem to be gaining much support from construction and they only go part way to what we need.

One school of thought, which I subscribe to, is that new standards specific to piling and other construction data should be developed to complement IFC and OGC standards, providing suitable schema for linked data.

The case for a piling data format

The AGS format for GI data came about because of an obvious need to transfer data from GI contractor to design consultant. For piling, the need to transfer construction data is not so compelling. Historically the piling industry has been ambivalent about digital data exchange. However, the ongoing digital revolution has changed the narrative, with many now recognising that digital data is a good thing and that the mavericks (like me) who have been pushing for a common data format for many years, may have been right all along!

We also have a situation now where a lot of site data is being collected digitally, either through rig instrumentation or engineers using tablets on site to collect data manually. Added to this is the fact that we are now much better at handling and processing data. Scripting, using Python for example, is now fairly routine and generic data formats such as XML and JSON have evolved to make it even easier. We are no longer reliant on big and expensive software packages to process the data.

This is all good news, but is there really a business case for a common piling data format? The answer surely must be yes. In the figure below I identify some of the potential use cases and benefits that arise throughout the entire life cycle of a piling project. A more detailed discussion is given in the paper Guidance on the Standardisation of Pile Data Capture presented recently at the BGA Piling 2020 conference, of which I was a co-author.

Of the potential benefits, those that I believe could have the biggest impact are:

  • Pile design schedules: this format will include scheduling and it will take the current FPS E-pile schedule to the next level. A key driver here is elimination of the errors and misunderstandings that we are still seeing on a regular basis.
  • Pile testing: I cannot believe that we, as an industry, have got to where we are without finding (or even talking about) a standard format for transfer of pile test data. We are still using unstructured spreadsheet files! Don’t get me started … come on, let’s get a grip.
  • Future re-use of foundations: as a designer I can report that on far too many occasions we are reluctantly recommending against potential foundation re-use options simply because of lack of records for the existing foundation. As I said above, digital data in a common format is not the only possible answer to this, but I believe that it will really help.

Introducing AGS piling

The concept of having a piling data format has been around for many years, but it was not until late 2016 that it got out of the ground properly when the AGS and the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) got together to create a first draft, which I ended up being the lead author of. There was a positive reception at the time, but unfortunately momentum was then lost. It was re-ignited when the Deep Foundations Institute (DFI) got involved. The draft was dusted off and re-circulated, and the paper for the BGA Piling 2020 conference was produced to inform and hopefully incite more interest.  There is now some genuine interest from some projects and contractors, and the hope is that this can be leveraged to move it forward.

I should point out that AGS piling is only a working title as in practice this is a joint enterprise by AGS, FPS and DFI. AGS has an aspiration to have a family of data standards that build on the existing AGS (factual) format and AGSi (beta), and it would make sense for piling to be part of this, especially as the AGS ‘brand’ is well known and respected in the field of data standards.

This blog is already getting quite long so I will not talk about the schema itself here. However, I will provide you with a sneak preview of the overall structure (high level groups/tables only) via the figure below, which you are welcome to peruse.

AGS Piling (Draft) Data Model

For full details of the draft schema itself and information on how to get involved, please follow this link to the AGS website:

If there is demand, I will say more about the schema in a future blog, or possibly a video if I’m feeling really keen.

One thing I should point out about the draft is that it looks like the current AGS4 format for GI data. However, since the draft was first published we have had the beta release of AGSi, a new format for ground model and interpreted data. AGSi adopts a more contemporary object model approach and its primary encoding format will be JSON. This provides a better fit with current digital trends. It is proposed that AGS piling will be revamped to adopt an object model approach and JSON encoding. However, this is not important right now as we are only seeking feedback on the requirements (scope) and overall structure.

Other construction data?

As you can see, we have made some good progress on piling. This is also intended to eventually incorporate piled and diaphragm walls.

Other initiatives of interest I am aware of are:

  • Grouting: some early work has been done within AGS, but it would benefit from specialist technical input to push it forward. Any volunteers?
  • Instrumentation and monitoring: the newly formed AGS I&M Working Group is currently looking at data flows. Their current plan is to then take a look at data standards, at which point the suitability of the current AGS4 format, which in theory includes I&M, will be reviewed.
  • Earthworks: I have heard on the grapevine that some work on a data schema for this is happening within the industry. If someone (with authority to do so) is able to update us, perhaps using the comments below, that would be fantastic.

As you can see, we are moving in the right direction.

If you are interested in getting involved in any of these initiatives, then please use the links where I have provided them or, if you prefer, you can contact me using this website’s contact form, and I will point you in the right direction. I am particularly keen to hear from piling people, as we would like to establish a steering/consultation group for AGS piling.

References and useful links

Draft of AGS piling available from:

Boddy J.M., Pennington M & Chadwick N.C. (2021). Guidance on the Standardisation of Pile Data Capture. Piling 2020: Proceedings of the Piling 2020 Conference.