Right now, construction can feel like a very challenging sector to work in. With regulatory reforms, a shrinking talent pool and economic and political uncertainty, it can be difficult for businesses to feel confident about the future.
At the same time, construction firms face daily challenges that limit productivity. Our Digital Groundwork report found that issues with information-sharing, collaboration and rework are experienced by businesses across the industry.
PlanGrid recently held a roundtable session in collaboration with the Institution of Civil Engineers, to explore how businesses can best approach these challenges and improve their productivity. Our group of tier 1 contractors, public sector clients, academics and technology experts shared fascinating insights on new solutions.
But, in addition to construction’s difficulties, the panel also highlighted reasons for construction businesses to be excited – at the new opportunities being presented by technology. Here are three takeaways from the event that point to construction’s exciting future.
Creating a joined-up building ecosystem that benefits everyone
Poor information-sharing is a barrier to productivity reported by many construction firms on the ground. But the views of our group of experts suggest that the issue stretches right across the building lifecycle, from procurement through to facilities management. A fragmented approach to projects is hindering productivity and quality – and a key part of the problem is that digital tools haven’t been adopted evenly across the sector, which makes it hard to pass information between different building phases.
A leader in BIM at a tier 1 contractor highlighted that architects can now create digital models with information for the delivery phase, such as product details for all the supplies and a schedule for when they’ll be needed. However, this functionality often isn’t used: “I can give clients game-changing information, but currently no one wants it.” Instead, BIM data is often “flattened out” into PDFs for the jobsite, meaning that rich information doesn’t reach the hands of those who can use it.
Technology, however, can help to create a more joined-up process, with better results. A technology specialist was involved in a project to build a plant: “We brought operatives in to look at the digital model and got excellent feedback – particularly on the difficulties that the proposed staircases would create for maintenance teams. We then made refinements and ended up with a much better product.”
Digital technology can help to bring different parts of the building ecosystem together – but for it to work, platforms must be easy to integrate, using APIs or non-proprietary data formats. That way, rich data can be passed down through the lifecycle, and put into the hands of those who need it, to improve both the delivery process and the overall result.
Technology is a chance to attract new talent to construction – and upskill the workforce we have
Talent has been a challenge for the construction industry for many years and squeezed access to labour is professionals’ single biggest concern about the 12 months ahead (45%). Currently, the workforce is declining by around 140,000 workers a year; according to the experts, too many young people see construction “as a last choice career, rather than a first choice.” That also means the industry is missing out on young candidates’ digital skills, at a time when technology is becoming more important to success.
But technology also presents an opportunity to change the industry’s image. Half of our survey respondents say that having the latest technology would support their recruitment efforts (46%). A director at a multinational engineering firm noted: “New technology is very attractive to young people. Our most exciting team is the BIM tech team – and our young employees are most interested in that.”
Technology can also help to educate children about construction from a much earlier age. A technology specialist suggested that “right now, everything is concentrated at the post-school level; we should be using digital tools to communicate with children at Key Stage 3.” Similarly, a leader at a public sector body highlighted the power of open source games like Minecraft:
“We could encourage six to eight-year-olds to build their own schools.”
At the same time, there’s an opportunity to put technology in the hands of the existing workforce – and help experienced, knowledgeable workers to gain new digital skills. Our panel pointed to successful initiatives on infrastructure projects like Heathrow Airport and HS2; these projects include training centres for disciplines like BIM, that are open to the whole supply chain. By putting intuitive, easy to use tools in the hands of those “at the coalface” of construction, there’s the chance to improve skills throughout the industry.
Further innovations are just around the corner – and the UK is well-placed to thrive
Emerging technologies are creating all kinds of new opportunities in the construction sector – and our roundtable discussion highlighted some of the innovations that are just around the corner. From the construction perspective, virtual reality tools may be used to enable teams to visualise designs in 3D before going on-site.
Blockchain, a technology that creates an inalterable record, could be used to underpin contracts between firms, for greater trust across the industry. And as smart cities develop, 3D BIM data of new buildings could be integrated directly into the “digital twin” of the city – so that the public authorities can run the city more efficiently, with services like public transport and energy and water.
The growing collection of data – and more sophisticated analytical tools – will also be important. Our technology specialist pointed to efforts to use existing historical data to improve practices; for example, health and safety records can be analysed with artificial intelligence to identify the factors most associated with incidents. Data can also enhance other parts of the construction process: procurement rules could be turned into digital code, for architects to input directly into designs.
Despite the possibilities, changing technology can seem daunting for firms on the ground. In fact, a third of professionals are worried that their firm won’t be able to keep up with new technology (36%). Importantly, new technology comes at the same time as other changes, like regulatory reform. But in the view of our experts, the UK is very well-placed to thrive amidst this technological disruption.
The workforce is very well-educated compared to some other economies, according to our technology specialist, so it can adapt to new ways of working. Equally, the climate of change could prove a positive disruptive force, according to a BIM leader at a tier 1 contractor: “It’s hard in the UK because many things are happening that make change feel difficult. But, those challenges are good drivers of innovation. In the UK, we’re much more interested in finding a disruptive approach.” With all the change that’s happening, this could be the moment to set up the future of construction.
Construction firms certainly face a time of change in the UK – and technology is one element of that. But although it may feel disconcerting, it’s important to embrace the positive opportunities coming to the sector too. The advent of new technology is a chance to rethink how the sector works, to drive up quality, job satisfaction and productivity for everyone.
As one of our panellists suggested, “We need to spend more time thinking about the future and how we will get there. We have the opportunity to reimagine the future – rather than just nudging from the past.” With a positive mindset and a proactive approach to new opportunities, our experts are confident that UK construction firms can thrive.
Read the Digital Groundwork report to learn more about the opportunities to benefit from new technology.