Technology in construction is a familiar concept. Yet while building information modelling (BIM) has been around for a while, construction by and large has been slow to embrace the digital world and what it has to offer in the same way that advanced manufacturing has. In fact, construction ranks only above agriculture in terms of how digitally behind the curve it is.
This might be understandable in terms of what construction does. It builds things on building sites using manual labour.
Times are changing, however, and the industry needs to modernise. Construction technology – in particular digitalisation and automation – will play a vital role in such an endeavour. Mark Farmer, author of the report Modernise Or Die and founding director and chief executive at consultant Cast, wrote a few years ago that very few businesses ‘have really latched onto the one change agent that can single-handedly tackle all of these issues in one fell swoop – next-generation technology and the impact of increasingly digitalised workflows.’
More are doing so now, and while it is likely to be a slow process, there are things businesses can do to get up to speed with the latest developments and be competitive.
Digital vision based on long-term strategic priorities
Construction has been using several forms of automation and digital technology – including robotics and design software – for some time. But the fast pace of change means companies have to be focused on what they need technology to be able to do for them in the future.
According to Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the COVID-19 pandemic has made digital transformation ‘more urgent, with companies looking to enhance their agility, speed and data-driven decision-making’.
BCG highlights the need to manage talent and build digital skills; transform ways of working; create a data and digital platform to smooth the path to digital transformation; and what it calls ‘governing for value … bringing the business and tech sides of a company together and how to lead the transformation from the top’.
When planning a digital journey, appointing an internal ‘digital champion‘ helps; someone who understands the power of what digital can do and helps to facilitate buy-in when the wider implementationhappens.They can help manage change, inspire others and support others during the process.
Strengthening cybersecurity skills
As the construction sector becomes increasingly digital, and with the global construction and design software market worth US$9.6 bn (AU$14.3 bn) in 2021, cybercriminals’ interest in the industry is inevitably going to grow.
Last year, the global construction industry was the number one industry hit by ransomware attacks, a hacker-induced computer virus that holds a device hostage until the owner pays a fee to regain access.
Construction’s attraction for hackers focuses on the sector’s slow transition to digital, the abundance of shared networks, numerous forms of payment transactions, and a lack of compliance and regulatory safeguards.
When it comes to construction firm cybersecurity, Bluebeam advocates a shared responsibility model. Several stakeholders need to be involved to ensure cyber defences are as protective and effective as possible.
Such collective protection measures offer the most secure defences against the evolving threat of cybercriminals.
Improving digital dexterity and related processes
How does a company develop a digital strategy? How can it best harness the potential that digital and other technologies offer? Since adoption is not universal across the construction sector, being open to that potential and recognising where technology can take the business is key.
The ability to adapt is crucial. According to consultancy Deloitte, an adaptive business is typically powered by digital technology. For many organisations, efforts at digital transformation automatically follow.
But Deloitte also points out that many transformations fail because firms find it challenging to drive cross-functional change and plan beyond one technology at a time and develop a strategy that can last as technology evolves and organisations’ core assumptions shift.
As the Construction Industry Training Board spells out in its report, ‘Unlocking Construction’s Digital Future’, ‘developing flexible attitudes, creative and problem-solving mindsets, and a range of other softer skills alongside an understanding of technology and data could help the industry take great strides in its digital transformation – and potentially reduce some of the cultural and structural barriers to its uptake.
Committing to the cloud
The cloud is a relative newcomer to construction, but its uptake throughout the industry is gathering pace, and it’s clear to see why.
As digital technology connects people, the demands on data sharing and storage will increase. The cloud offers ways to collect and store data from technology – such as drones and other devices – in ways unthinkable a generation ago.
The cloud also helps facilitate flexible working practices, allowing people access to documents and plans.
Having the right technology, underpinned by regular internal engagement and positive reinforcement about the benefits, can help organisations bridge the gap with their teams and make remote construction work possible.
Advancing construction automation
Much as automation has helped the automotive and manufacturing sectors improve productivity, so automating processes in the world of construction can have a significant impact on workflows and project outcomes.
Robots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing technology and drones can make project assessments easier and more comprehensive, while online collaboration and seamless exchange of documentation can play a significant part in ensuring that a project progresses smoothly and efficiently.
Automating redundant, cost-inefficient processes helps businesses of all sizes accommodate evolving customer needs while meeting increasing business expectations. And while automation aids people to do their jobs more efficiently, it also creates opportunities to do things more impactfully, which in turn creates greater job satisfaction.
The hybrid workplace
The model of how we work has fundamentally shifted, thanks largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Working locations changed during COVID-19, as people’s movements were restricted. Now those restrictions have been lifted, many of us want to continue with the flexibility to work somewhere convenient.
Employers recognise the benefits of such an approach and where possible do their best to accommodate staff’s wishes.
Building a workplace where hybrid schedules are not just allowed but welcomed requires planning. Technology that gives everybody access to the same tools that office workers have is critical.
Cloud-based software means all team members can access the latest information, and videoconferencing tools mean your team can meet from anywhere at any time.
While leaders must demonstrate that it’s acceptable to work from home, the emphasis is on ‘hybrid’ working; it is important that businesses allow for both in-person and remote participation in team meetings.
A commitment to sustainability
Sustainability might not be the first thing that springs to mind when it comes to digital working practices.
However, as observers point out, it ought to permeate every aspect of a modern construction business, including information technology.
Some argue that a wholesale overview of the likely impact of digital operations on the wider environment is vital, and then commit to targets and measuring the progress towards them.
A longer-term goal would be to share the findings and experiences with others to boost their impact.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that many of those working from home and using digital infrastructure will be responsible for carbon emissions.
When comparing the carbon output of 200 employees at consultant WSP across commuting and home/office heating, it was found that office working in winter and home working in summer can lead to an overall reduction in carbon emissions.
Some firms also work with renewable energy suppliers or give benefits to employees so they can buy energy-efficient household appliances to reduce energy consumption at home.
Training talent, recruitment and retention
Enthusiastic, talented staff are the bedrock of any business. In times of change, ensuring that existing staff are motivated and well-trained is essential, and never more so than when a business is moving to a technology-enhanced, digitalised future.
Businesses looking at a strategy that involves digital and technology development should identify – either from their ranks or via a specialised recruitment plan – potential digital champions, individuals who understand the importance of the technology and what it can do in terms of transforming the business.
Once digital policy has been embedded in, it’s recommended to hire a head of digital construction, whose duties would include overseeing a benchmarking exercise against competitors and drafting a three-year digital construction strategy for executive approval.
Outcomes are the most important aspect of a shift in technology, and embracing digital ways of working should be seen by staff and management alike as a journey toward a tangible end, rather than something that is novel and new.
Integrating with your supply chain
Consultancy McKinsey has described data as the lifeblood of a business and has argued that it should be treated as such.
The operational system linking an array of data will be crucial, McKinsey argues. A sensor detecting a piece of equipment is faulty should tie up that data with an inventory system, checking if a replacement part is available. Further data will determine if a maintenance team can then replace the faulty item. Supplier pricing data then needs to track the costs of the item and labour, along with billing data, ensuring the right customer is billed and payment tracked.
Farmer said the ability to digitally connect design to a supply chain with automated ordering, manufacturing and payment processes will start in closed, vertically integrated supply chains aligned to specific delivery platforms.
Technology – whether that comes in the form of software packages designed to enhance collaboration and quality or new hardware products that save time and money – will clearly play a vital role in advancing the construction industry’s ability to respond to challenges facing societies today, and tomorrow.
Climate change, the increasing need for new homes and infrastructure, and how the built environment can better meet the needs of growing populations across the world are in the sector’s sights, and technology will help advance its cause.