Reclaiming Innovation: Closing the Technology Gap

Even with so-called high-tech innovations, the construction industry has historically been slow to adapt — but the tides are beginning to turn
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Illustration by Kim Salt

Compared to other industries, construction has been slow to adopt new technology.

2018 KPMG survey of more than 4,000 industry chief information officers revealed only 23% of respondents in the construction and engineering industry said they had an enterprise-wide digital business vision and strategy. That’s 9% lower, on average, than other industries. Additionally, more than half of the construction-and-engineering industry respondents (54%) indicated that their company had no digital business vision and strategy.

The reasons that construction industry technology adoption has been slow are myriad and complex, but the divide typically comes in two forms: on the one hand, small teams of highly trained in-office professionals are often at the forefront of pioneering digital solutions; on the other hand, most field workers on jobsites are behind the technology curve.

As part of the Bluebeam Blog’s ongoing series on reclaiming innovation, it’s important to note the extent to which digital technology in the construction industry is positively contributing to the industry’s progress — and where technology adoption in the construction industry remains a struggle.

Here, we profile how certain construction companies are advancing the way technology is contributing to their work while also showing the limitations that remain for the industry to stretch full adoption to all corners of the profession.

Slow to adopt

Part of the reason that many companies are slow to adopt new technology stems from the contract structure employed by most major projects. When contractors and firms bid on projects, they’re incentivised to keep costs as low as possible. Oftentimes the first budget items to be cut are new technological innovations. If augmented reality wasn’t necessary in the past, it isn’t necessary now, the traditional thinking goes, and without it the project can be done cheaper.

Of course, this ignores the reality that new technology is designed to make projects easier, faster and more efficient. New technology can prevent costly mistakes, make jobsites safer and save money. But for contractors who work on razor-thin margins — especially smaller firms — the upfront investment doesn’t initially appear worthwhile. Moreover, the industry’s bidding structure disincentivises risk and long-term investment in favour of familiar and cheap options.

“The biggest problem with adoption to the technology is really just hesitation and not immediate ROI,” said Lizz Babin, chief operating officer at engineering and consulting firm PACE Group LLC in New Orleans, Louisiana. “This is an upfront cost that the value isn’t seen until you’re finished.”

Compounding the construction industry technology adoption problem is the fact that calculating the return on investment for a new technology is a huge and costly endeavour. The market for new platforms is also exploding, making it exponentially more difficult to wade through the options while calculating possible ROI in a timely fashion.

“In the past two years, the number of platforms that offer similar services has increased radically,” said Gautam Shenoy, BIM director at Los Angeles-based architecture firm Steinberg Hart.

Shenoy has taken on the challenge of wading through various technology solutions and trying to calculate where they might save time and money for Steinberg Hart, but many companies are still lacking this type of analysis: the same KPMG industry survey also asked respondents if they employed a full time chief digital officer or an equivalent role. Only 42% of CIOs surveyed said they did, which was 8% lower than other industries.

Staying educated

Communicating the potential value of new technology to the rest of the company or to clients can also present challenges, but Babin and Shenoy both agree that education is crucial. It’s important to not overwhelm clients, Babin said, but to give them hands-on opportunities that are relevant to their everyday work.

“You may be working with somebody who’s in their early 50s and they’ve never ever seen a virtual reality headset before,” Babin said. “We don’t just throw it on them; we don’t push it. But we let them see how we use it, and then they get engaged and they want to do it as well.”

As BIM and other downstream technologies become nearly universal on jobsites, there are even simple logistical challenges that need to be met.

Tim Cuga-Moylan, design director and BIM instructor at Gurtz Electric Co. just outside of Chicago, points out the fact that it’s often still a challenge just to get internet on the jobsite. All of these software tools are incredibly powerful, but they’re all also cloud-based, meaning without high-speed internet access, they’re basically useless.

Cuga-Moylan said the eventual arrival of 5G mobile data networks may finally alleviate a lot of these challenges, but contractors need to think about how to actually get the digital information to the workers on the jobsite.

“They’ve learned it; they want it. We have to figure out how they can get it quickly,” Cuga-Moylan said.

Closing the gap

In spite of these challenges, the construction industry technology adoption gap is indeed closing.

Firms rapidly beginning to appreciate the value of digital solutions, as well as concepts like lean construction, are rising to the forefront. Making up the remaining ground relative to other industries will require continuing to prioritise technology education for the existing workforce and longer-term thinking and investing.

Purchasing augmented reality headsets for a crew may seem like an exorbitant expense now, but the cost of playing catch up and losing bids to future-orientated contractors that have found ways to use technology to add value may prove even greater.

“Every office, every company, every firm needs to look at technology solutions and have conversations — not just with themselves, but with all the different players that participate in the lifecycle of a project,” Shenoy said. “It makes a huge difference to have that kind of open communication so that every investment that’s made in the technology produces the most efficient, well-designed and most-livable spaces.”

Here’s why most “innovations” in construction have little to do with technology.