Building for the future: Digital transformation in the construction industry
The construction industry has a serious productivity problem. In the uncertain times that have followed 2008’s financial crisis productivity growth has stalled in general, but the problem has been affecting the construction sector for even longer. There is a global annual shortfall of $1 trillion in infrastructure spending and many large-scale projects come in late and wildly over budget.
Profit margins globally are also the lowest of any industry, save for retail. Traditionally, the UK has also faced similar problems but in recent years the country has made positive changes – and digital transformation is central to this change.
In fact, digital will arguably define the future of the industry – from planning to logistics, manufacturing to transportation. So what are the current and future trends in the industry, and what role does app technology play?
Offsite manufacturing refers to the planning, design, fabrication and assembly of construction projects in purpose-built, off-site locations. London’s iconic Leadenhall Building was 85% manufactured offsite, with the developers finding it the perfect solution for the building’s tight footprint and the constraints around site storage.
Heathrow Airport, too, has been garnering headlines recently with its announced plans to deploy modular offsite manufacturing and engineering during its £17.8 billion expansion. According to Building Magazine, offsite manufacturing will save approximately one million onsite working hours and reduce the workforce needed by almost a third.
These offsite factories significantly reduce the level of on-site labour intensity and risk – saving money, improving efficiency and offering greater quality control. To work properly, however, it requires the integration of digital technology.
Phil Wilbraham, programme director at Heathrow, believes that digital engineering, combined with offsite construction, is the key to not only the Heathrow expansion, but to saving the British construction industry. He explains: “Our job as client is to create an environment to design really creatively. To allow all the great ideas and creativity to come through in a timely manner. And how do we do that more efficiently? Using offsite construction and then assembling it onsite using digital engineering.” He does stress, however, that they need support, adding: “There are enough people out there talking about changing how we deliver projects, and about digital engineering. We’ve got a massive opportunity here, but we can’t do it alone – we need the industry to help with that.”
He’s right, of course. The industry as a whole needs to be on board with digital innovation. This is particularly true of offsite manufacturing, where a million and one moving parts and conversations happen simultaneously.
More dispersed teams require collaborative working tools and communication methods to ensure projects are properly aligned. Having control over the entire supply chain allows for greater integration of processes and data flows in one cohesive system. Digital platforms are ideal to manage the end-to-end process of design, manufacturing and installation (including asset tracking and accessibility via smart device app integration).
The value of offsite manufacturing is undeniable, but it brings with it plenty of challenges. Every one of those challenges – from planning to logistics to communication – can be tackled by digital technology.
Offsite or on, there are a vast number of people involved in a typical construction project. Planners, site managers, third-party suppliers and the crew are all parts of a larger machine, and those parts change daily. Without great communication, the machine can’t run at full efficiency.
This isn’t just about checking emails or sending direct messages to each other on site (although that comes into it). Building Information Modelling (BIM) is an established approach, supporting key stakeholders in the construction process – enhancing productivity, sharing info, monitoring progress. It’s certainly not universally adopted as a standard practice but as large scale construction projects tend more to digital, it undoubtedly will be.
Of course, to reach all the key stakeholders, both on-site and off, BIM needs to be accessible to all. It’s becoming more and more common to see site workers with iPads and tablets, not to mention the fact that most construction workers have a smartphone on them already. This makes communication and planning far easier than ever before, creating a connected network of people all reading from the same sheets, monitoring progress in real-time.
Large-scale construction projects aren’t always in areas with great network coverage, of course. That’s why you need to think offline-first. An offline-first app, crafted specifically for the construction industry, could take care of everything from daily reporting and punch lists to RFIs, change orders and task management, all without the underlying worry that it might potentially cut out at a crucial moment.
Our Yachting Pages app is a perfect example of offline-first thinking. The directory was designed to work in the middle of the ocean by downloading all pertinent data to the smart device itself: it gives crew members access to an extensive database wherever they might find themselves. Whether it’s in the middle of the ocean or the middle of the countryside, mobile signal failure can spell disaster. For comms tools to work well, they need to work consistently.
On May 2, an official advisory panel drew up Britain’s eco-friendly battle plan. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) made its mission clear: to eliminate net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 in the UK. As a sector that consumes around half of the planet’s raw material output and contributes around 50% of European carbon emissions, the construction industry has its work cut out. With the lines already drawn, it’s not an option for new construction projects to ‘think green’ anymore, it’s a necessity to ‘do green’. The industry is responding: a recent government survey revealed a 14% growth in the number of construction stakeholders who expect more than 60% of their projects to be green. But there’s still a long way to go.
Sustainable, ‘green’ construction is rapidly becoming standard practice, but only for the nimble. Standards like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) are driving sustainability projects. But to achieve and document the performance levels required in LEED facilities, contractors must be prepared to innovate.
The Internet of Things or 3D printing can help efficiency, sure, but also reduce waste and costs. As the technology improves, sites will never overestimate construction materials, and never have to wastefully fabricate specific parts for builds. Added to that, data gathering and analysis could have positive knock-on effects in construction for decades.
The industry is constantly looking for new materials to build with – more cost effective without risking public safety. Data analysis of materials over time, and over multiple sites, can give valuable insight into what is truly effective. What materials are long-lasting and effective? Which ones need repair? Digital technologies supporting the management of buildings will give us better understanding the qualities of materials to support the push for sustainability.
Finally, on a small yet essential scale, going digital also means less waste around the offices and sites involved in a project. Investing in sustainable construction technology that eliminates paper plans and files saves valuable time and money and has a positive impact on the environment. According to the app-based construction management platform Fieldwire, going paperless onsite will not only save a construction company upwards of $35,000 on a single job site, but will put less strain on the environment as a result.
In the UK, at least, the future of digital adoption in the construction industry seems bright. £18 million in new Government funding from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund has been devoted to projects ranging from exploring the use of digitally-designed 3D-printed concrete components, to developing ways to organise teams of robotic assistants. The challenge now lies in utilising this opportunity without the waste that has beset the industry up to this point.
Funded projects have also explored how voice-activated Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality can be integrated with the assembly of components to speed up construction and increase productivity, without compromising health and safety. In addition, UK Research and Innovation has also announced that £13.3 million will be used to fund 24 collaborative research and development projects, delivered by Innovate UK.
Construction Minister, Richard Harrington, said: “The use of Artificial Intelligence, digital techniques and off-site manufacturing help us harness new methods of working. This delivers on the Government’s Construction Sector Deal which pledges to build better performing buildings, using less energy and providing better value for taxpayers.”
At the fifth British Information Modelling Event last year, meanwhile, numerous construction industry speakers saw an industry that knows it needs to change, and digital could be the answer. Jozef Dobos, CEO of event sponsors 3D Repo, said: “The panel spoke with one voice when they called for change in the outdated processes and systems that still hold back the construction sector. They sent a clear warning that if companies do not change, they will not survive – as has been seen in other industries where new technology innovators have disrupted and completely changed their market.”
According to The Economist, if the productivity growth of the construction sector had matched that of the manufacturing sector in the last 20 years, the world would be $1.6 trillion better off each year. So, the challenges might be great, but the rewards are even greater. It might not necessarily be a case of “modernise or die,” as Jozef thinks, but perhaps it’s time to start thinking about construction 2.0.
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