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Rob Charlton: A UK hub of tech & digital expertise

In a region that has produced industry-changing inventions like the lightbulb, the steam engine and the lifeboat, it is little surprise that the North East of England is known the world over for its innovation and enterprising spirit.

As a global centre, in days gone by, of major industries like shipbuilding and railways, the ground-breaking work being done in the North East helped to define the future of whole sectors. But in a region that continues to be inspired by its proud heritage, it should come as little surprise that game-changing innovation is still happening, with work being done in and around NewcastleGateshead that is redefining traditional industries on a global scale.

Rob Charlton

Through the introduction of Building Information Modelling (BIM), the construction sector has been transformed from an archaic 2D sector into a world increasingly dominated by 3D modelling, which enables projects to be created and mapped digitally. The advent of BIM has been hailed as the start of a ‘new industrial revolution’ which is attracting a whole new generation of young talent into the sector.

And in keeping with its innovative history, the BIM revolution is widely credited to have begun in Newcastle. Many key names in the sector – Kykloud, Viewpoint Construction Software, NBS/RIBA Enterprises and BIM Academy, a partnership between Northumbria University and Ryder Architecture – hail from the city.

Renowned Newcastle-based architectural design network Space Group – one of the earliest adopters of digital software in the construction industry – is seen as one of the driving forces behind its popularisation, and has used BIM in some of the most prominent and well-known building projects in the UK, and indeed the world. The London Olympic Stadium and the capital’s £1bn King’s Cross Masterplan are just some of the internationally significant schemes on which Space Group has used BIM.

Since first turning to digital software in 2000, by the end of the decade, Space Group’s entire design portfolio was done in 3D. Such is the group’s presence and reputation in the sector, it has launched two dedicated BIM businesses as part of its portfolio – BIM.Technologies and bimstore, both of which are now highly respected names in their own right.

Rob Charlton, chief executive for Space Group for 15 years – the business itself is 60 years old – has overseen the group’s transformation into an international BIM leader.

“Our industry has always had a lot of challenges – traditionally, it’s seen as being very analogue, and there are issues with efficiency and predictability, it isn’t great at investing in research and development – so when we came across this new software back in 2000, we wanted to change things, to change thinking. We started to show the difference that could be made, and it was by about 2005, when we finished our first building using 3D design, that the real value became clear,” he said.

“I think it’s fantastic that this is all happening in Newcastle and it shows this is a great place to be for a business, and for great people to make a career. There was a time when you couldn’t work on certain projects because you weren’t based here or there, but it doesn’t matter these days. You can do things anywhere with the ability to work remotely, and I would say this is a fantastic place to be. We have strong businesses, good universities, great spirit and strong support.”

In 2018, for a second consecutive year, the UK’s major BIM event – BIM Show Live – is being held in Newcastle, at the city’s Boiler Shop – an events venue first constructed in the 1820s as the world’s first locomotive works. With support from NewcastleGateshead Convention Bureau and VisitBritain, and working with event management company BeaconHouse, Rob has been able to bring the event to the city and to attract visitors from across the UK and Europe.

“It’s great that, after a few years of BIM Show Live being held in different UK cities, we were able to bring it home to Newcastle. Last year was a huge success and the vast majority of attendees were from outside of North East England. Through support from NewcastleGateshead Convention Bureau, Invest Newcastle and VisitBritain, we were able to bring a European delegation over, and it’s great to hear people’s reactions when they are visiting the city. I think NewcastleGateshead Convention Bureau are a good example of North East England as a region – they’re a great bunch of people who really do want to help you. They don’t just say they’ll do something, they actually do it, and that’s valuable.”

As well as being hailed as transforming the traditional construction industry, Space Group is equally known for its commitment to enticing young people across the UK into the sector. As part of BIM Show Live, Rob introduced Inspiration Days for school children, parents and teachers to attend and learn how construction could offer opportunities.

Rob said: “Construction is no longer just about working on a building site, there are so many things happening now that young people can relate to. We use the likes of HTC Vive, Microsoft Hololens, these are things young people are familiar with but most probably never thought they would be able to use in construction.

"We want to challenge perceptions from school age, and it’s probably even more important to change the perceptions of parents and teachers, who will know what the traditional construction industry is like, but things have changed. It’s great to see our region leading the whole UK in this space, but we need to continue to attract great people to make sure this continues.”

  • The North East has the highest percentage of STEM and computer science students in England.
  • Sage – the largest tech company in the FTSE 100 – is headquartered in Newcastle.
  • NewcastleGateshead is also home to Accenture, Eutechnyx, Opencast Software, Red Hat, Scott Logic and Ubisoft Reflections.
  • The North East has the highest concentration of ICT employees in computer games in the UK.
     

The content and photography in this editorial section were produced by North East Times.

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