The Technology Coin - Two Sides of The Same Coin

In her latest blog Helen Bailey, Managing Director at The Driven Company and Consultant to FM Conway, tackles how the construction industry can coexist and learn from the use of accelerated technological advancements.

There is no time like the present, and no present like the time, as we look ahead 2019 already looks busy with many challenges on the horizon. As we are navigating our way out of the (potential) divorce from Europe new opportunities present themselves. Opportunities to plan, train, and innovate. 

A recent report by Mckinsey published three years ago1 cited the construction industry as being among the least digitised according to their Global Institute digitisation index. According to their index at the time, our industry was deemed to be marginally ‘better’ than agriculture and hunting and ‘ripe for disruption’. What exactly does that mean though and is it just the latest in a long string of management buzzwords? If we can park up the cynicism for a moment it really boils down to challenging the norm and creating a culture that fosters and perhaps more importantly, values creativity. Irrespective of definitions, clients have come to expect digital access to services and products whilst at the same time also derive greater value. 

Five key trends identified1 as having potential to shape construction and capital projects in general were found to be as follows:

1.    Higher definition surveying and geolocation, rapid digital mapping, estimating, the use of drone and unmanned-aerial-vehicle (UAV) technology, to dramatically improve accuracy and speed.

2.    Next generation 5D building information modelling (BIM) to provide design platforms for the future with functional and physical characteristics through the use of augmented reality technology. The adoption of integrated platforms that spans project planning, design, construction, operations, and maintenance rather than relying on a number of bespoke and often disconnected software tools.

3.    Digital collaboration and mobility, paperless projects, real time data, improvements in quality, leading to increased reliability, transparency and collaboration.

4.    Advanced analytics and internet of things (IoT), intelligent asset management and decision-making tools. The ability for construction machinery, equipment, materials, structures, and even formwork to ’talk’ to a central data platform to capture critical performance parameters. The use of sensors, near-field-communication (NFC) devices, and other technologies to help monitor productivity and reliability of both staff and assets.

5.    Future proof design and construction, the development and implementation of new building materials, such as self-healing asphalt, concrete canvas’, aerogels, and nanomaterials, as well as innovative construction approaches, such as 3-D printing and preassembled modules, to help lower costs and speed up construction.

Less than three years later2, reports of new analysis of the construction ecosystem finds emerging trends, constellations of solutions, and an ever-increasing universe of technology, which is most likely largely linked to investment in the sector having doubled over the last decade. As technology and innovation gains traction and develops pace, 3D printing, modularisation, robotics, artificial intelligence and analytics are poised to provide our industry with transformational change.

Already we are seeing the use of drones and satellite imagery being used on a regular basis to provide productivity gains, transparency and proactive problem resolution. These photosphere reality-capture solutions have the ability to turbo charge key performance indicators that can of course be monitored by an Internet of Things (IoT) and their sensors. What does all of this mean though? Put simply, devices and equipment become connected and can talk to each other, like the way we all used to, so is this really the silver bullet we’ve all been looking for?

Those that know me will probably have heard me use the expression, positive disruption, which for me is the starting point for change.  A means to improve efficiency, raise the bar on quality and provide smart solutions as we move from a world of product delivery to solutions and managed services. Whilst technology is great and we are in fact embracing and adopting many innovations within the construction sector there are still a number of fundamentals that need addressing.

Like what I hear you say? Well, with technology comes data, and lots of it, big data in fact which is the artificial intelligence that realises the future of the smart connected world of IoT devices. Before we even think about implementing big data solutions on a grand scale though, we need to decide what to do with the existing data we already have? The truth is while we all get excited about ‘big data’ the problem is not gathering it, in fact quite the opposite –it continues to pile up quite nicely, but are we gaining any real insights from analysing it in such a way that we unlock its full potential value? IoT and big data analytics have the potential to informationalise our products, services and processes, drive quality and improve business intelligence. Our inability to manage, utilise and truly understand it however, will lead to us stagnating in a pool of unused information.

To compound this, recent research3 from City & Guilds Group developed in collaboration with The Work Foundation, explored some of the challenges facing the UK construction sector, with members of the industry citing skills as a major problem. They noted that the majority of people in employment now will still be in the workforce in 30 years’ time. For the construction industry, that’s almost two million professionals who know that their skills are already becoming outdated thanks to technological advances. To survive the numerous challenges the industry faces, and boost productivity, the workforce will need to develop digital, analytical, and interpersonal skills, requiring new standards, training and qualifications. Whilst at the same time we need to reflect the diversity of our activities and provide more opportunities for young people to experience real-life activities, including through digital platforms. 

This all sounds great doesn’t it, but some could argue that with advancement in plant technology and increased reliance on process and systems we are creating a real disconnect between what happens on a computer screen and understanding the fundamentals of our materials and their performance. Add to this augmentation of data modelling that we are now beginning to see replace cognitive bias and flawed assumptions with fact-based insights, have we gone a step to far and removed the need for engineering judgement?

In many cases these issues are further exacerbated by an ageing workforce and skills shortages. Perhaps Brexit is a time to refocus, re-engage and close the gaps in our knowledge that technology may have potentially created. With the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, changing educational landscapes and calls for upskilling, the time is right to draw on the lessons learnt over decades of experiential learning. Employees remain a vital asset for any business. Whilst digitisation has the potential to enhance the work we do, improve quality and efficiency, it should not be seen as a way to replace fundamental skills. As we embark on 2019 as an industry, we are entering an exciting period of using digitisation to enhance and complement our great people and great work not replace them.

…………Or perhaps I am simply blogging a dead horse?

Helen Bailey
Driven
Consultant to FM Conway 

References:
1Agarwal et al, 2016
2 Blanco et al, 2018
3 UK Construction, 2018

Agarwal R, Chandrasekaran S and Sridhar M, (2016), ‘Imagining construction’s digital future’, McKinsey, June 2016

Blanco J. L, Mullin. A, Pandya K, Parsons M, and Ribeirinho M. J (2018), ‘Seizing opportunity in today’s construction technology ecosystem’ McKinsey, September 2018

UK Construction, (2018), UK Construction Online, accessed; https://www.ukconstructionmedia.co.uk/news/skills-shortages-strangling-construction/