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Technology with a purpose

Construction is often considered slow to embrace technology. Studies have regularly highlighted that it is one of the least digitised of the world’s industries. Equally, other industries have myriad examples of failed technology projects because those championing the investment have not fully thought through their plans, or spent enough time with key departments to really understand their requirements.

The focus needs to be technology with a purpose, where the planning includes questions around who should be involved, why the project is being done and what benefits will it provide that give a competitive edge, improve efficiencies or financial returns.

“The why and that purpose word is the foundational piece to getting it right,” says Alain Waha, Head of BIM and Digital at Buro Happold. “Nobody wants to spend money on technology just for the sake of it…or because there is somebody that is enthusiastic about it. The understanding of the purpose then becomes central to technology becoming strategic to the firm.” 

To date, says Waha, there are few examples of technology taking a central, strategic role within construction. Instead, strategy has focused more on risk management, the construction process itself, how to best structure a joint venture and align motivations of key stakeholders. “Technology has evolved…but have we really seen a deep adoption of technology in construction today? The evidence is not yet.”

But as digitialisation becomes central to the whole value chain, be that a building’s design, the construction processes or an asset’s operation, companies are pushing the growing importance of construction technology to the board so that it forms an integral part of the organisation’s strategy. Making technology a core value can take time and involves people from across the organisation, so that they become comfortable with the plans, believe digitalisation will enhance their working practices, result in better, more attractive and more efficient buildings and ultimately, is not seen as the first step towards the exit door because their role is no longer needed.

Historically construction has not invested enough in research & development or technology, says Waha. Companies have invested in initiatives such as risk management and health & safety to improve the quality of their operations and capabilities. Should technology also be a strategic part of any plans within construction? “That’s what I am seeing in the market. Those that are asking the question are….seeing some evidence that there is a strategic, sustainable advantage to [deploying] technology,” he says.

The first signs of this happening are when companies hire senior staff into roles such as chief information or chief digital officer, who then look at how technology can be mobilised on site and in the back office to improve operations, he says. Rather than the industry evoking traditional images of a construction site – big machinery, lots of people and hard hats – it shifts towards one where real-time data guides decision making, smart phones have access to up-to-date information, sensors feed information on site activity or worker safety into a database, and so on.

Mobile technologies

The technologies enabling much of this change – particularly mobile technologies – are still young, giving construction a leapfrog opportunity where it can cast off suggestions that it is slow to adopt new technologies and approaches. People reluctant to use programmes on laptops can find themselves seamlessly interrogating sophisticated data on smartphones without thinking about or seeing technology as a barrier.

“The iPhone is interesting, because this is really [the moment] when a computer is put in every hand and [technology] is radically democratised,” says Waha. “So the radical democratisation of technology – in terms of thinking about sites and the process of construction – only becomes available maybe 10 years ago. Before that it is very static and requires big investment against a 3-5-year business case.”

An obvious starting place for embracing technology in construction is the cloud. Various companies have found the Covid-19 pandemic has been a catalyst to invest in collaborative, cloud-based software or to push a previously reluctant workforce towards using it more, so that remote workers can continue their day-to-day jobs.

The biggest growth sector has been the connected site and connected individual. Simple approaches such as watching the site and the way people interact and move around it can lead to a better understanding of where technology can make a difference, says Waha.

There is a lot of information on site that can be exchanged rapidly; increasingly that real-time, decision-making data is seen as a way to improve production processes. For instance, the ability to know quickly where materials are in their journey, if they are delayed, or have been installed and signed off is the type of information that can keep jobs running on time and in budget, or arm a contractor with knowledge that enables them to make fast decisions to avoid a delay.

“[By] replacing the clipboard with a phone, and [putting forms] on the mobile phone what would happen? The phone would be connected to the trailer and the back office. I would have pervasive information immediately. On top of that it would be in a database and I could mine it and understand what’s happening in near real time,” Waha says.

The benefits of construction technology are becoming more ubiquitous, giving them more attention in the industry. In turn the investment case for differing construction technologies are becoming easier to explain, especially as clients seek assets that are attractive and efficient – both rapidly becoming essential tick boxes for employees or tenants.

“To go back to the fundamental question of what’s the purpose, only the business [can] decide how it competes, how it can bring technology to serve its purpose. Is it a great place to work? Is it a business that provides a better building? Or a safer place to work? Understanding that and getting the leaders to recognise that there could be a sustainable advantage if technology was put to work – that’s the key to getting deep adoption.”

This article first appeared on sister site Digital Construction Hub

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