Karen Fletcher looks at whether the reputation of the construction industry for failing to embrace new technology is justified.
The construction industry has a bit of a bad rep when it comes to technology. Blokes in vans with hard hats and tool-belts is probably what springs to mind if you tell someone you work ‘in construction’. The idea that this is a high-tech sector embracing all that’s great about digital tools seems a bit of a difficult sell.
Compare construction to the manufacturing sector, where digitisation, automation, use of robots are now common practice. In factories around the world, well-established process management tools such as just-in-time production are driven by digital technology. All that has driven up productivity as well as higher product quality.
The construction industry could certainly benefit from those outcomes but has been slow to adopt technology. Some of the reasons for this reluctance relate to the nature of the work. Like manufacturing, there are repetitive elements in construction. For example, all buildings require the fitting of lights; of wiring; or of raised floors and dropped ceilings.
BIM is also beginning to make its presence felt on a growing number of projects.
Unlike a factory, every building project takes place at a different location with very different spaces, facilities and particular problems to deal with. Each wiring project is a start-over situation.
And of course, the product that’s being produced by the construction sector is never the same as last time – so there’s no ‘standard’ layout or product design.
Manufacturers benefit from the fact that they produce a standardised product. Even car makers that offer customers certain selections (colour, seat covers, parking sensors) do so in a controlled way that allows them to mass-produce a semi-personalised product.
So, when it comes to adopting technology, construction is starting from behind.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening gradually. A Mckinsey report titled The new age of engineering and construction technology, states that: “The engineering and construction industry is at the cusp of a new era, with technology start-ups creating new applications and tools that are changing how companies design, plan and execute projects.”
Some of the technology that is finding its way into projects includes drones. These are increasingly used for early assessments of sites and save a lot of time and manpower as they cover a lot of ground and can also make use of heat-sensitive cameras.
Less glamorous, but equally useful is the proliferation of apps for smart phones that help installers with calculations and measurements – as well as gathering information on product performance.
Adoption and barriers
In the back-office of course, we are seeing the gradual adoption of digitised documents and information sharing via cloud-based systems. BIM is also beginning to make its presence felt on a growing number of projects.
Other technologies seem to offer useful benefits for the construction sector, such as the ability to track a product as it arrives on site, and check when it has been installed. Or to check on site operatives’ location to help with Health & Safety.
One of the biggest barriers to adoption of new technology is a lack of funding for investment and for training.
The problem is the sector’s low margins which leave little room for this kind of expenditure – which, ironically, would go a long way to improving those margins.
As we move into the future, with government driving a more modern construction industry, adoption of more IT and digital tools will undoubtedly become a point of difference for construction companies.
Those who can offer better ways of doing things and have the staff that can use these tools with confidence, will find themselves at the front of the queue for work with clients who want things done differently – with better outcomes.
Mckinsey holds out the promise of big rewards for those prepared to commit to technology: “The companies that place the right bets now will probably be the industry leaders in the next ten to 15 years if they match their greater investment in technology with a company-wide commitment to change.”