For most of us, technology plays a fundamental role in day to day life. It’s transforming our lives and it’s transforming the way we work in particular.
Automation dominates the manufacturing and automobile industries, streamlining their processes, reducing the number of workers needed, increasing health and safety, and improving design and build quality too.
So it might be shocking to those unfamiliar with the construction industry to see how little technology is being embraced (beyond a cohort of industry leaders, that is). Construction consultant Mark Farmer shared the risks of not embracing technology in construction in his 2016 government-commissioned report, ‘Modernise or Die’.
It’s not that the construction industry isn’t talking about technology. It’s the implementation where take up is slow. So it was encouraging to get an invite from the Building Live team for their ‘Digital Futures and Managing Risks’ event. I jumped at the opportunity and spent an afternoon in the presence of some of the UK’s top 150 contractors sharing how technology can be used, and what the barriers for change are.
Here are my takeaways from the day.
Let’s start at the very beginning
Technology needs to be used from the very beginning, particularly during the design process. Kate Ives at Wates Residential South is keen to see technology being used at the land and planning stage to drive it into construction, right through to the back end of the housing management process. Using technology at the start of the design process could also bring more certainty, according to Paul McNerney at Laing O’Rourke.
Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
All of the contractors had something to say about the industry needing to collaborate and work better as a team. Robert Robart at Derwent London said complicated buildings are getting more complex and need greater teamwork. Technology such as building information modelling (BIM) can play a key role in enabling collaborative working. It makes the collaboration between architect, engineer, site manager and, at the other end, building maintenance and facilities management, a simpler and more efficient process. It also allows the client to be more involved; it is their building, after all.
Data and analysis
Once you’ve got your technology up and running, it’s time to start extracting data, often in real-time. Data is great, but only if it’s analysed and the insights gained are put to good use. If you’re not looking at patterns and trends and learning from your mistakes, there’s no point collecting it in the first place. Will Waller at Arcadis asked the construction industry how it is accommodating its failures, as this is an important part of success. Patricia Moore at Turner & Townsend wants to see a greater emphasis on data and analysis for benchmarking.
But who will do all this data crunching? And what are the other barriers to construction tech take-up?
Attracting new talent
The construction industry has a skills crisis, which is linked to its image crisis. Some people don’t fancy doing a site-based, muddy boots, hands-on job and unfortunately that’s the stereotypical image of construction that still comes to mind for many people. Today, technology is ingrained in everyday life for millennials, Generation Z and beyond. This makes them ideal for roles involving processing data, but construction probably isn’t an area they think they can apply these skills.
Stephen Beechey from Wates Construction shared that more than 60% of its graduates don’t have construction degrees. I don’t think that will surprise many people. It’s an industry that many of us fall into by accident and once you’re there, you begin to love it. Paul McNerney at Laing O’Rourke sees fundamental changes for jobs – with a shift to multi-disciplinary engineers and technicians – as tech use increases.
(Read Liz’s thoughts on winning the war for talent in construction.)
Saving your asset
Investment is needed in order to grow a business. But unfortunately the construction industry is suffering a lull in investment right now. Ian Marson from Ernst & Young reports that funders who were active three-to-four years ago are removing themselves from the market. This doesn’t stop contractors from doing their own research and development, and investing in training. But Ian reported the industry spends the least in both of these areas out of all industries in the UK. This restricts the industry’s ability to embrace technology and more innovative methods such as offsite construction.
Patricia at Turner & Townsend suggested that the government should play a key role in investing in offsite construction and driving the agenda, much like it has with the school building framework. A strong government policy is needed. Stephen at Wates added that many in the industry want to grow their technological capability, but can’t without a decent pipeline of work.
So, if you are fortunate to get the ball rolling with implementing construction technology, what does that mean for legal contracts? According to Jonathan More at Fenwick Elliott, a third of those using BIM, or other forms of digitisation, don’t think their existing contracts cover what they need to. The moral of the story? Basically, you need to get your wallet out and pay for a better, more robust contract to be drawn up.
Grab your tools
So, we know some of the ways technology can be implemented and we know what the barriers are. It will take a serious culture change in the construction industry to get it mainstream, but it can be done – we have plenty of clients who provide outstanding digital construction solutions or who are using these new technologies right now. All are generous with their knowledge, so if you ever want any introductions, just get in touch.
It’s time to grab your virtual toolkit and get out there and do the job.
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