Although best known for its work in the construction sector, engineering consultancy Atkins today operates across a dizzyingly diverse range of technical fields – from transportation, defence and smart infrastructure through to clean energy and even nuclear fusion. And as the company’s UK and Europe CEO Richard Robinson recently told The Engineer, this breadth of expertise will be key to delivering on some of the grand trends and challenges that will define both industry and society in the years ahead.
It’s a period of absolutely enormous change and, if you look at it the right way, opportunity
Robinson, who started out as a chemical engineer before pursuing a management career that has included senior-level stints at Heathrow Express, AECOM, and HS2, believes we are living through a period of once-in-a-lifetime technological change, where a confluence of so-called “megatrends” is transforming the markets Atkins serves. “If you think about the changes that are sweeping the industry there’s net zero, modern methods of construction, digitalization and post pandemic recovery to name but four,” he said. “Any one of those things would be a once in a decade type change but we’ve got four or five of them all at once. It’s a period of absolutely enormous change and, if you look at it the right way, opportunity.”
And whilst change hasn’t always come naturally to the construction sector (which remains Atkins’ biggest market) Robinson now detects a growing appetite to move with the times. “If you look at things that other industries have done such as lean, Kaizen, etc, all of these things this industry has tried to resist but now there is enough momentum and…..technological change that we can really go for it.”
One area in which this is most apparent is in the adoption of digital technologies. In the past, said Robinson, the fragmented nature of the sector (with its wide and deep- supply chains) has made it difficult to drive digitalisation. But the emergence of information standards has started to change this. “Information management standards are the key to unlocking digital in my view and the ability to set those standards and have them bottom up, top down, sideways in, is such a key thing,” he said.
Acceptance of digital tools has also been further driven by the challenges posed by the pandemic, he said: “If we’d decided we were going to work from home for a period it probably would have taken us a year to think about it , a year to plan it, another year to worry about it maybe a year to do it…and yet we turned our entire ten thousand UK and Europe staff to working successfully remotely within a week.”
Atkins’ own adoption of digital technologies has, he said, been helped along by the fact that the company straddles so many different sectors. “Something I didn’t know about Atkins until I joined was the breadth of industries we work in,” he said. “We’re responsible for AI facial recognition in the UK’s busiest airport; we work for clients I can’t tell you too much about; we work in defence and we help other companies and public sector clients do digital transformation in their own businesses. We’ve got the opportunity to learn from other industries and I see plenty of occasions when we do that.”
As part its investment in digital transformation Atkins has launched a new initiative that uses machine learning and AI to optimise the interface between design and construction. Robinson explained that this technology can be used to help improve decision making by enabling project managers to draw on data and analysis from previous projects and rapidly evaluate the potential impact of particular decisions.
Whilst digitalisation is transforming the way that Atkins works, another megatrend - the push for net zero greenhouse gas emissions – is defining almost everything the company is working on. And with its recent publication of the Engineering Net Zero report Atkins is at the forefront of efforts to stress the vital role that engineers will play in delivering on these targets. “One thing I admire about Atkins is we have a very practical, delivery focused mindset,” said Robinson. “Our report is very much focused on what are the engineering challenges of getting to net zero? What will we need to do with our electrical generation system, what does that mean for the grid and distribution? It sets those challenges out.”
A lot of the focus is on new projects….but actually 75 per cent of the emissions are already built into existing infrastructure
Much of the orgnisation’s work in this area is around helping organisations understand what they need to do to get to net zero, said Robinson. However, whilst much of the wider attention is focused on new projects a major part of the challenge, he said, is dealing with existing infrastructure. “A lot of the focus is on new projects….but actually 75 per cent of the emissions are already built into existing infrastructure so it’s much more to do with sorting out stuff that’s already built rather than new projects.”
Activities in this area range from technical advisory services to the department for education on its net zero schools program (a £12bn, four year program looking at applying modern methods of construction to new schools) through to what Robinson describes as “super strategic work “ with the European investment bank on helping create a roadmap that will help drive investments into areas and projects that will have an impact on net zero.
Atkins’ broad portfolio of activities (which was broadened further following its 2017 acquisition by Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin) is a reflection of the times. Few if any sectors operate in isolation and the boundaries between once distinct areas of industry are becoming ever more blurred. This is driving an increasing requirement for cross-sector collaboration which is something, said Robinson, that Atkins has become adept at. “We seem to have a pretty good handle on that and are pretty clear on what we’re able to do and what we need others to do. I think that’s the trick of it: understanding your own strengths, understanding where you need to work with partners, and being clear on who’s doing what. It sounds simple. You’ve got to maintain that discipline and focus on what you’re good at.”
As in other large organisations and sectors all of this change is driving a requirement for new types of skills. And tapping into this pipeline of future skills, particularly around data and digitalisation, is another major priority area. “There is a big challenge in how the construction engineering industry starts to recruit people with the types of job title they wouldn’t recognize – cloud computing data scientist for example. Those sort of job titles wouldn’t have been in any list that we looked at two or three years ago.”
It’s a challenge that has been compounded by the restrictions which the pandemic has imposed on our collective ability to engage and interact. But Robinson is impressed by the way in which Atkins has overcome this. “Challenge number one was not falling into that trap of cutting off the talent coming into the business,” he said. “I saw it happen before in the 2008-2009 financial crash and it set businesses back four or five years, so I was determined we were not going to make that mistake.”
One key practical measure was ensuring that the company’s graduate program - which last year took on 370 graduates - didn’t grind to a halt. “During the pandemic I’m sure many companies cut back their graduate programmes, but we did not do that,” said Robinson. “We maintained every single graduate offer we were going to make in 2020 and we’ve done the same this year.”
Beyond that, he praised the businesses managers for the ways in which they kept staff engaged during successive lockdowns. “Our managers have done a tremendous job,” he said, “they’ve worked really hard to create engagement and make sure they’re constantly talking to the junior staff to create forums for them all to get to meet each other and trying to replicate all of the things we would have done physically.”
When the pandemic hit we put in place what we called our reimagine strategy
For all the challenges it has created the pandemic has also generated opportunities, added Robinson. As regularly reported by The Engineer, the virus has both catalysed the adoption of digital technologies and also driven investment in emerging areas - such as battery manufacturing and hydrogen - that are expected to be key to the UK’s longer term economic and environmental ambitions. And Robinson believes that thanks to the strategic decisions the company made as COVID hit in March 2020, Atkins is well placed to play a leading role in these areas. “Our recognition of four or five megatrends all coming together at once is huge for us,” he said. “When the pandemic hit we put in place what we called our reimagine strategy – which was how we would reimagine our business around those big trends that were coming and that’s set us in really good stead. It’s always nice to see strategy pan out into performance!”