What Does it Take to Automate a Tunnel Boring Machine?
04 Mar 2020 | Gamuda Berhad

The World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO) and the United Nations have designated 4th March 2020 to be known as World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development.

Previously known as ‘Engineer’s Day’, it is meant to give due recognition to engineering innovations that make our lives better and promote engineering as a career among school children.

The United Nation’s 9th Sustainable Development Goal aims for industry innovation & infrastructure development that helps our society progress in a good way for future generations.  Coincidentally, Gamuda Engineering’s persistent drive on ingenuity is already demonstrative of this global initiative.

It was 2015 in the MRT SBK Line project, when Ng Hau Wei, back then a tunnel manager based at Cochrane station, asked electrical superintendent, Russell Jon Batty; “do you think it’s possible to build a tunnel boring machine (TBM) operator simulator from a control cabin of the TBM?”

Russell’s answer was deadpan, “I was wondering when you’d ever going to ask!” The rest, like they say, is history. In fact, for MMC Gamuda Underground section, this would be the second time they’ve made history with another tunnelling disrupter.

Having at first stunned the world with the efficacy of the Variable Density TBM (VD TBM), the next wave came in the form of the Autonomous TBM (A-TBM).

The A-TBM working team was formed in July 2018; Sam Liew Kit Shen, the PLC engineer, was already a mentee of Russell in the project, while John Lim Ji Xiong, an engineer with programming background, was just returning to work after a month-long hiatus due to a dislocated arm.

Justin Chin Jing Ho was appointed project lead, conducting regular reviews with the team and act as mediator between top management and the working team. In less than 4 months, the algorithms for auto-steering was written, synchronised into TBM PLCs, and validated on a machine mining underneath a 13-lane highway.

In less than a year, the system was expanded into three more major sub-systems of tunnelling; by the end of 2019, it has won two major global awards* for tunnelling innovation.

The secret of their success? As prime mover for both the VD TBM and A-TBM, Hau Wei firmly believed that having a vision that is uncompromising in its ambition is critical. And of course, having the right people, at the right place and time.

“If we had engaged external consultants to get the ball rolling, it would’ve cost a lot, and the ‘knowledge osmosis’ between disciplines would have been very limited, consuming even more time and resources than necessary.”

“Instead, it made more sense that a concerted effort in-house, capitalising on our rich pool of talents, both young and old, would increase our chances of success.” True enough, Hau Wei’s strategy worked.

As the attention of the world is now cast on this relatively young Malaysian contractor, MMC Gamuda KVMRT (T) Sdn Bhd is already working on its next phase in tunnelling automation. There’s no stopping them now – in the pursuit of construction reinvented, through serious automation.

*The A-TBM won 2019 Technical Product/Equipment Innovation of the Year award at the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association (ITA) awards event and Innovation in Tunnel Excavation award at the NCE Tunnelling Festival.