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Technology and what the construction industry can learn from manufacturing

by Ofentse Sefolo
Technology and what the construction industry can learn from manufacturing

By now people are acutely aware of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the world as we know it. The construction industry is one of the industries which has been most severely affected, and in Europe the drive to use technology to reignite this industry has been a major focus. And they offer local companies many valuable insights.

Using technology to drive home their point, a group of well-respected construction industry players recently convened a webinar sponsored by Deltek and hosted by Lem Bingley, the editor of Construction News. They discussed what the construction industry can learn from the technology and processes used by global manufacturing.

The panel included:
• Lydia Walpole, digital operations and performance director of Costain.
• David Hancock, construction director of the IPA.
• Craig Finn, head of preconstruction at Henry Boot Construction.
• Nick Nieder, director and product manager of Deltek.

Technology adoption
The opening of the discussion centred around how each of the companies has introduced technology during the pandemic, and how they are currently still using it to ensure business continuity. The panel touched on elements such as the importance of the industry being nimble and resilient in the face of adversity. They also highlighted that had the pandemic not occurred, the industry would not have been forced to look at reshaping its ways, and especially not this rapidly.

It became clear that as a result of the pandemic, the adoption of digital technology was fast tracked and resulted in improved collaboration between various construction industry role-players. The panel discussed how quickly the industry learned to engage via digital platforms, creating new rules of engagement and etiquette, which has now become the new way of working.

Having to find new ways of working, resulted in the proverbial “wake-up call” the industry needed in many areas of business. The panel agreed that legacy issues and a lack of integration have been prevailing for far too long. They felt that although some of the initial quick wins happened in the back-office space, they were surprised by the technological research and development because of the pandemic. Many of these permanently changed the way things are done.

Noteworthy technological development
According to the panel, one of the big wins was that industry players are now less afraid of change as they have experienced the benefits of technology first-hand. This point was emphasised by the fact that the manufacturing industry is strides ahead in terms of elements such as automation, facial and biometric recognition, standardisation and playbook creation.

Here the panel referenced the modern methods and technology of companies such as BMW’s stock-control system, where “just in time and just in a week” have been part and parcel of the manufacturing process for more than a decade.

It became evident that technology allows for new and innovative ways of performing construction duties without having to always physically be on site, such as the use of drone technology, which is being adopted for “real-time” site inspections. Something which in the past would have been met with much resistance, is now slowly becoming the norm.

Diversification and new skills
The panel is also of the view that, as technology develops, it will make the construction industry more accessible to diversity. The use of technology for various processes will not only create a range of new career opportunities, but it could also enable people with disabilities to enter this field.

Whilst there may be an initial skills shortage, the panel made the valid point of creating more awareness about career options in construction as part of the education agenda, enticing it as a modern and technological driven career along with other modern-day industries.

In terms of data, the panel felt that it is an area where more collaboration and system thinking is required to drive data insights, which can improve efficiencies across various processes as well as the overall quality and safety. But the host wanted to know, what is needed to drive this forward?

Digital transformation map
The answer is for each business in the construction industry to create, implement and manage its digital transformation map, which ideally should entail of a blend of homegrown and off-the-shelve technological solutions. The panel felt that the more technology improves, the more opportunities for collaboration will become important to shape how technology is developed and adopted to the industry’s specific needs.

Digital transformation digitalization disruption innovation technology process automation internet concept. Pressing button on virtual screen.

It was concerning to the panel that some processes still involve archaic things such as fax machines and cheque books, for which there is no longer a place in this fast-paced world. If there is an app for a process, it should be adopted – rather than to keep using outdated technology and processes. This is intricately linked with driving a constant shift in the mindset about how the industry functions.

The biggest challenge
Employee engagement and training people to use new technology, as well as the set-up cost, remain barriers for many companies. However, the panel noted that often new technology’s cost is offset within the first year of installation.

They felt that the construction industry should be promoted as a progressive industry that must appeal to what they termed “digital natives”. Companies should be more future-fit and focused. This includes employing the younger generation, as they have grown up with technology and will be more effective in trouble-shooting and fast-tracking adoption in other areas.

The natural progression of this will be that the construction industry will become more effective in terms of planning, costing and scheduling, which will eventually mean digital transformation across the supply and value chains.

This will also result in more learning and early engagement in projects, resulting in better management of the overall supply chain and creating a two-way street between these two environments.

The benefits of construction technology
The use of technology will result in the industry becoming more effective in finding solutions to common problems, including early detection and ultimate prevention. Driving purposeful innovation means that the industry becomes more advanced and experienced, rather than just having pockets of excellence.

It will result in the broader appeal of construction as an industry of enterprise architects who drive social value and impact to improve, grow and keep the industry relevant.

Even though a part of the industry will for the foreseeable future still see work with a bucket and spade, the information management benefits cannot be disputed. It will create what the panel termed “a place of truth”, where the sole purpose of technology will be to ensure that role-players have the right information, at the right time, to make the right decision.

Risk reduction and elimination
The essence of this is “derisking”, where the overall efficiency, excellence and quality of a project are improved to the benefit of the client, and ultimately improving safety.

A recent project where a set of gantries had to be installed on the N2 motorway across two powerlines, provides a real-life example of the benefits of technology. Using 4D technology, the company was able to determine the exact placement of the gantries using simulation technology that allowed the engineers and crane operators to pinpoint and rehearse the placement.

The result was that the project was completed in less than half of the time scoped, meaning improved quality, safety and efficiency. The motorway was opened two hours ahead of schedule, without any problems experienced during the installation.

The panel noted that something as simple as a snagging list that becomes part of a digital library of various digital catalogues would mean a great deal to standardisation and process efficiency.

Finally, the conclusion was that the future should not be a question of what trades or skills to eliminate, but rather a question of how it can be improved as part of improving the construction industry as a whole, with the use of technology.

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