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At technology’s fore

An upcoming Punggol bridge showcases Hwa Seng Builder’s groundbreaking use of precast technology

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In the far reaches of Singapore, a vehicular bridge will be built over Punggol’s Serangoon River using methods at the forefront of civil engineering innovation.

What is unusual is how almost every component of the massive structure will be made in a factory elsewhere. Concrete columns with a height of 12 metres and crosshead pieces joining 160-ton beams will be transported to the construction site. There, they will be installed, Lego-like, to form the finished structure.

“Traditionally we would place the moulds, cast the columns and the crossheads, and place the reinforcement bars at the construction site,” said Thomas Ng, 48, founder and managing director of Hwa Seng Builder (HSB), the homegrown firm handling the project.

“By using precast technology, the construction process is safer, and more environmentally-friendly. We can also improve our productivity and reduce our reliance on foreign labour.”

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Precast technology, the process of making construction materials away from the construction site, has been used for easily repeatable items like walls and floor slabs.

It is less commonly used in the civil engineering space, like the Punggol bridge.

HSB can forge new ground and stand apart from its peers because of the willingness of its relatively young, mid-40s management team to adapt and act on new trends, Mr Ng said.

Its use of precast technology has multiple benefits.

For one, the construction process is safer. Workers do not have to clamber up and down tall bridge columns, which would otherwise have been made on site.

The installation process is also faster, with a precast column installed in a week instead of three weeks on-site.

It is also more environmentally-friendly, said Alan Nah, 45, executive director of projects.

“There is less noise disturbance. The waterway is an active reservoir and casting on site would have resulted in debris dropping into the water,” he said.

Virtual modelling

Precast technology is not the only way which HSB stays ahead. For the past few years, it has been using building information models (BIM), a three-dimensional, computer-aided modelling system.

BIMs allow engineers to better visualise the construction process down to the smallest details before work begins. This minimises design incompatibilities and reduces the chance of wasted work.

HSB has also begun to manage its construction process through virtual design and construction (VDC), a management method that incorporates BIM to improve productivity and efficiency.

Mr Nah said the use of technology helps the communication process with workers, suppliers and clients. The BIM system can even be plugged into virtual reality headsets, allowing for virtual walkthroughs.

On the ground, specialised sorting machines are used to improve productivity, a GPS tracking system manages logistics, and closed-circuit TVs allow for remote monitoring.

An electronic permit-to-work system for critical activities, enabled using Novade software, helps speed up workflow and enhances work safety. The software also helps to collate near misses and non-conformance.

25 years of developing people

HSB has grown significantly from its beginnings in 1992 as a sub-contractor performing minor road and drain works to a 400-strong company with annual revenues of above S$100 million. The group celebrated their 25th Silver Jubilee this year.

“I started the business because I was influenced by my late father, who was a sub-contractor running a small company,” Mr Ng said. His sister Jacqueline, a HSB director, is in charge of finance.

In 2010, HSB has qualified as an A1 contractor with the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), enabling it to bid for projects of unlimited value within the public sector.

Its Punggol bridge project is part of a S$185-million tender awarded by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in 2015 for the design and construction of vehicular bridges and piled roadways on the former municipal landfill area at Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE) and the Tampines Expressway (TPE) interchange, including Link Road to Punggol Central.

In January 2017, HSB was awarded another S$74-million tender to build a new road in the area.

A key reason for the company’s success through the years is its team of qualified, competent and committed staff, Mr Ng said.

“Our most important asset is people. Everyone is looking for opportunities and better career advancement. You have to give good people opportunities, and treasure them, so they continue to contribute to the company.”

HSB thus sends managers and staff for overseas training. It also offers scholarships to existing staff as well as to university students so as to bring in new blood.

The company aims to be the long-term trusted and preferred civil engineering contractor among its clients by demonstrating its professional expertise and quality work within a safe, healthy and environmentally-conscious workplace, he said.

“We would also like to thank BCA for guiding and supporting us, and also our clients like LTA and Changi Airport Group for placing their trust in us and giving us the opportunity to explore new technology.”