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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information
Knowledge exchange

CSIC secondment scheme provides a productive exchange between industry and academia facilitating knowledge transfer between both parties. Mahul Patel, a tunnel engineer at CH2M HILL, shares his experience of being seconded to CSIC.

Name: Mahul Patel

Age: 26

Job title: Tunnel Engineer

Qualifications: Masters in Engineering at UCL. One year working in domestic construction sector. Joined CH2M HILL as a graduate tunnel engineer working on National Grid Power Tunnels, a detailed design project.

Company: CH2M HILL, London. Currently working on the Lower Thames Crossing Project and National Grid

Date and length of secondment to CSIC: “One year from March 2014. It was originally a six-month secondment but extended to a year. The learning curve peaked at about six months so it made sense to be able to build on that, and I think CSIC was quite keen to keep me…”

What did you work on during your time at CSIC?

“I arrived at CSIC with the intention of assisting on National Grid London Power Tunnels (NGLPT) but I ended up working across a range of projects. National Grid was a good project choice for me because I had been involved with the detailed designs of the tunnels at CH2M HILL.

I also worked on a variety of Crossrail projects: the Thames tunnel at Woolwich, Paddington Station and fibre optic instrumentation at Liverpool Street Station, where I was involved with the on-site instrumentation. I was a member of the deployment team and had the opportunity to instrument a range of different assets, from diaphragm walls at Paddington to bridge beams at Staffordshire. This gave me experience in a range of instrumentation techniques including using distributed fibre optic and fibre Bragg technology across a variety of structures.”

What was the highlight of your time as a secondee?

“I really enjoyed the site work. It was exciting because the environment is always different and I was presented with new challenges. I enjoyed being put in the position where we had to apply ourselves to solving problems and challenges on the spot.  We had to work with real constraints; a fixed budget, a fixed time and a limited number of resources. But it wasn’t all site work; I was able to work at all stages of developing a system to make it the best it could be and that was very satisfying.

I was given a lot of responsibility but the support was there too – CSIC has a great team of people. I was nervous at first that I might not be able to deliver but I think I surprised myself. 

At CSIC you are designing, implementing and working all the way through a project, from the start to the finish, and involved in every stage. I think that’s what makes CSIC unique.

You get out of the secondment what you put in – some of the projects we started at 7am and left at 1am. But you get so much out of the experience if you are prepared to commit to the opportunity.”

Were there any challenges?

“Yes, all the time. There was never an easy job. I’d say to the team, ‘we’ll be out of here in three hours, job done, home to Cambridge’ and we’d be there until 3am. These challenges are often things you cannot foresee so you have to be prepared to work around them. But the challenges present a valuable learning curve. One example of this is when I was working with the CSIC team on the Staffordshire Bridge Alliance project where we had a limited time – five days in total – to instrument seven bridge beams. The first beam we instrumented took us two full days, which meant we could not hit our target. We had to step back and evaluate the challenge and change our method and we were able to improve our time to instrumenting two beams in one day. When you work something out and get the job done it is very satisfying. When you get the data back and you see the result of what you have instrumented – it makes all the hard work and challenges on site worthwhile.”

What did you learn? What did you take back to your day job?

“The opportunity of being on site was really valuable – it’s quite difficult to envisage how a design will actually work from your desk, so it’s great to get on site and physically work alongside the contractors as it gives you an idea of how your design fits into the whole scheme of things. It brings together the practical side with the design side.

I have learned a lot technically and now understand how monitoring can help to optimise a design. A lot of what I took for granted before I worked with CSIC I would question now. Do we actually know how a structure behaves? If not, we now have the technology to find out.

I better understand how the reality compares with the design from a technical aspect. We have preconceptions of how we expect structures to behave but the instrumentation gives us much more confidence in what we know and offers a better understanding of the theory behind the design process.

The CSIC secondment has provided me with a ‘tool ‘; if I was designing something and was unsure about how a certain part might behave, I would have previously looked at case studies to draw a conclusion from historic information. Having worked at CSIC and worked with the range of technologies that can be applied to a variety of structures, I now have that extra tool at my disposal. My approach is now better informed.”

What are the benefits of a CSIC secondment?

• gaining a range of skills over a short time

• exposure to novel technologies and world-leading research

• working on small projects to build skills throughout the entire process, from start to finish

•participating at the early stages of technology and methodology development

• being part of an expert team

• progressing application for civil engineer chartership to further career

For more details about CSIC secondments contact