Construction Technology Adoption – Where Are We Going?
A few weeks ago, as COVID-19 was just becoming a part of our lives, we hosted a round table discussion hosted by Denise Chevin of BIM+. The event looked at how tech might be more easily adopted, what legal issues are out there and the implications for adoption and implementation of document management/record keeping. Also, what the future might hold for construction and technology in the ‘New Normal’.
A more detailed version of this article is online at http://www.bimplus.co.uk/analysis/round-table-tech-new-normal-will-uptake-accelerate/
The attendees comprised a hand-picked selection of experts including:
- A leading construction solicitor.
- Marzia Bolpagni – senior BIM adviser at Mace
- Paul Sandford, an associate at Peter Dann Consulting Engineers
- Jeevan Kalanathi and Phil Eifano of the technology company, OpenSpace.ai.
- Charlie Woodley, a data specialist and founder of Dispute Data.
- Hosts, Edward and Julie Carolan of Lindford Consulting.
Decisions from the bottom up?
Firstly what are the key challenges facing technology implementation in construction? At Lindford, the team often find that an organisation has a top-down approach to implementation of software and roll out. A testing process is implemented, and then a system will roll out across the whole business. The problem with this being that it may seem to some stakeholders that they have no involvement and therefore engagement will be difficult to obtain. The ‘bottom’ (for want of a better term) need to understand the importance of using it and what can be achieved. It is important to convince them of the benefits to change their mindset. Cultural change is key.
Paul Sandford has often found systems are often not used on-site because of when the decision to purchase the software has been made. It may be that the project has already started and these considerations should have been taken earlier. If it hasn’t been tested for field agents or end-users, they can often feel as though it is forced upon them. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t tech out there that is right for your project, but there are a lot of options, making it hard for companies to know where to put their money.
Marzia Bolpagni feels that as an industry, we need a research and development approach. But we often don’t have time or money for this. There’s also a need to be agile, as tech can progress very fast.
Breaking down silos and encouraging collaboration
Marzia notes that the industry is arguably poor at searching for improvements, testing and measuring benefits. Lots buy the tech, implement it but then do not measure the benefits. Each project is unique so it can be difficult to compare like for like. Implementation, particularly for first-time use, often happens in a silo.
It would be helpful to reuse the information we develop, and link platforms together. Ideally, everything should connect so we would only have to collect the information once, yet be able to use it over and over. If there were better standardisation, would this improve adoption and use of technology?
Another issue identified by Bolpagni is that of working with high-security clients, such as government bodies and military clients. In these cases, we cannot always implement solutions. Often questions are asked such as, “where are your servers?” or “where is my data stored?”.
From Charlie Woodley’s perspective, as much as there is pressure to adopt tech to improve delivery there is also downward pressure not to adopt. The supply chain appears to be digitising at different speeds.
Jeevan Kalanithi observes that as software providers, it’s incumbent upon the people providing the solutions to remove as many of these barriers for our customers as possible. The key is to design a product that doesn’t need a huge amount of training. Simplicity is the key. Also, cheaper technology can be implemented with fewer barriers.
Legal and document management issues
Lawyers see queries around everything from GDPR, human rights, data rights, copyright and intellectual property. There are lots of questions, but whether the use of tech actually hangs on these points is not always clear.
From an information management perspective, cost increasingly affects the legal process. It is incredible how much human labour can go into a small number of project records. Pressure is mounting to reduce the cost of dispute resolution. It is therefore important to create good records from the outset.
Woodley’s next observation is that we have become good at turning paper into a pdf. But that doesn’t take into account what we need to do with the information on that piece of paper. Does the change result in saving us time anywhere? Moving data between people on the projects, accounts, legal teams and experts can become complicated. However, our solicitor notes that lot of legal tech is developing well, with solicitors aiming to try to get to the point of being able to advise faster.
Success stories: What kind of tech is increasing?
Our attendees’ thoughts turn to their own experiences of working in construction. Even prior to Covid-19, Woodley suggests it is already a given that much communication in the construction industry would happen electronically. People are now far less likely to print, handwrite and scan documents, and it is rare to go through paper files anymore. In turn, this seems to be leading to better structuring of data.
Aside from the current situation, across the industry more generally, he notes we are seeing more take up of systems such as BIM 360 and other digital ways of working. Charlie notes that a lot of what we see in terms of adoption happens at a practical delivery level. For example, with BIM 360, people are flagging issues directly from site, and issues are being caught early on.
Phil Epifano tells us that he sees a lot of field-based technology being adopted. This is not necessarily being driven by quality or safety, but it comes down to programme speed. If you can respond to an RFI quicker when using field-based technology, you could save a day or two per query.
However, from Bolpagni’s experience of working in Italy, Finland, the US and the UK, take-up is different across the world. This is often related to both skills and demand. Finland, for example, is far more advanced than the UK. This raises the question of whether culture plays a significant role in adoption. It takes almost a generation to adopt new tech, so it could take a while for the UK to catch up.
In the US, Epifano notes that collaboration using software is increasing which is streamlining some of the daily tasks people have to fulfil. Parties are becoming more engaged in the technology adoption process.
What makes adoption easier?
The industry seems to be in agreement that we need to keep up with modern technology to succeed. But when it comes to uptake, we are one of the slowest industries. So what works?
The input of the client can be important in take-up, as can proving that tech can increase quality and safety, or reduce costs is often the easy part. Using it correctly across a project can be much harder. Epifano and Kalanithi note that convenience is one of the most powerful motivators to adoption. Ultimately people will choose to use something when it is easy and doesn’t interfere with their current ways of working. Technology which is hard to use will struggle with adoption, even if it clear that it gives a bigger return on investment.
Jeevan is conscious that cultural change is the most difficult thing to achieve in any business. Those designing technology have an important part to play.
What is essential?
For Woodley, the biggest touchpoint with clients is understanding what things absolutely need to be done. Particularly those that happen regularly or with high frequency. This can allow us to reach for the low-hanging fruit. For example, if typing site records by hand takes a certain amount of time and is carried out 3,000 times a month. If you can demonstrate technology will eliminate that process, you will be on to a winner.
Woodley also highlights a challenge that can sometimes be overlooked. The issue of how and why we create data. Data often needs to be re-purposed later on. For example, records which were created for one purpose may later be needed for use as evidence or for structured analysis in a dispute. Having tech that allows us to view and extract data for different purposes will be useful.
Where is the weakest link for adoption?
The lawyer in the discussion noted that often her clients will use different technology in different parts of the business and in many cases don’t know what others are using. They then try to join them up and encounter problems.
In response, Epifano highlights the importance of implementation being well structured to succeed. This can depend on the company. You should apply the same routine as you would if you were implementing any new process or system, which can avoid people feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.
What is happening now and what will the effects be?
On the whole, our panellists were optimistic that the ongoing Covid-19 situation could lead to an uptake of tech as the country goes back to work. Having been forced upon us now, there may be a willingness to adopt new ways of working that weren’t present before. An inevitable difficulty lies in convincing the industry that in difficult times they should be investing in innovation. This is compounded as people won’t be wanting to spend more money in difficult or uncertain times. However, it is likely that people will want to see returns on the investment from the tech they have already purchased.
Our legal panellist suggested the legal profession may see some modernisation. In law and the world generally, there is already so much tech that is not harnessed or connected. We need to use what we have in a modern way.
From a software perspective, the software team at OpenSpace have seen a big surge in the use of their platform as a result of Covid-19. This makes sense, as you can have a full virtual version of your project, meaning some people do not need to visit sites. However, clients will be looking for convenient, affordable technology with a clear value proposition. Tech buy-in is likely to drop, but that doesn’t mean nobody will invest at all.
From a consultant’s perspective, Edward suggests there seems to be a two-fold approach. There’s an element of modernisation generally, as well as a push to virtual working conditions. There could now be less office working, more online collaboration.
The new normal?
Bolpagni suggests we ought to perhaps stop thinking that we will be back to “normal” soon. We need to rethink normality. Think about reverse engineering, what is needed and why we are doing things. The industry cannot just adopt tech without a new way of delivering things. It will be about surviving, those willing to innovate and change, to make tech “business as usual” will likely be those who continue into a new era.
At Lindford, in the short-term, the team expect to see a surge of data gathering to deal with delay and disruption claims. End users are also a factor which requires consideration. They are going to want more information on their buildings. As things progress and in anticipation of increased adoption, the use of tech is likely to be a full project-lifecycle issue.
The Key to Success…
Tech holds the key to improving margins in the business. But adoption will vary across companies and how they go about it. The status quo will mean a lot of the current companies will no longer exist – whether it is the small or large that disappear could change the future of the industry.
Covid-19 is likely to change the way we work on-site for some time. Social distancing and the latest CLC advice/government guidance means that things are unlikely to return to normal for a while. Technology can provide at least some of the solutions in terms of reducing the numbers of people required to be on site.
However, with revenues dented and productivity reduced, will the industry be able to commit to the investment it needs to make to fund the necessary changes? Furthermore, there may be a need to harness technologies to provide accurate and structured records. Good records will be necessary to deal with any claims that arise and recover possible losses.