Technology is all around us and has become an integral part of most of our everyday lives. How we travel, how we work, how we relax, how we shop – all of these have been changed forever by the technological developments that we have seen in the last 2 decades.
Despite this change happening all around us, the construction and engineering sectors have been slow to grasp the opportunity that digital technologies present – and that is why on 23rd November a new event called SMART Construct was launched in Armagh City Hotel.
This is one event in a new series organised by Naomh McElhatton who has worked in the digital industry for almost 20 years. “Technology is revolutionising the construction industry in so many different ways but with so much technology available it’s a hard path to navigate” explains Naomh. The day was packed with a variety of speakers and panel discussions and a number of key topics emerged from the day.
Key to success for any event like this is a solid reason for existing and Naomh is very clear about the purpose that SMART Construct will serve. “This is absolutely not an event about technology first” says Naomh. “It’s an event about understanding the issues that the construction industry faces today and showcasing how others from both this sector and others have used digital technologies to solve these problems for both their own and their customers’ benefit.”
A key point to come across early in the event was the productivity issues that the construction industry faces. Steven Wood from Digital Catapult was the first to raise this issue in his keynote address and he reminded the audience that the construction industry is currently 30% less productive than industry according to a recent report from McKinsey. This was echoed by Richard Kirk of the Institution of Civil Engineers who told us that even in comparison with other European construction sectors our productivity is 30% lower. “This requires a new approach as it won’t be fixed by keeping doing the same things” said Mr Kirk in his speech. “Faced with global population growth and an ageing population we can’t simply build our way out of these new challenges. We need a new approach.”
One of the other key topics of the day was BIM – Building Information Modelling – and our relatively late adoption of this technology in how we design and build offices, houses and infrastructure was cited as a key factor in why our productivity lags behind our European neighbours.
Michael McLornan from the Government’s Central Procurement Directorate highlighted their recent adoption of the BIM Methodology while also highlighting that this had been standard practice in Finland since 2004 and North America since 2007. The system in Sweden is now so well integrated that if a member of the public notices a broken kerb stone they can simply take a photograph of it and submit it through an app where it will go to the relevant Government department and be scheduled for repair. “BIM reduces the opportunity for error and waste” explained McLornan “which results in cost savings and carbon reduction on all Government building and infrastructure projects.
Systems integrations are possible with the will to do it, the investment in it and the culture to make it work.” The topic of culture was a constant thread across the day and it was interesting to hear several of the contributors highlight how the culture of the organisations that we inhabit is a key factor in determining whether we will manage to realise the opportunity that technology offers us all. “It requires big change in many organisations” explained Tim Monroe, Marketing Director of Smiley Monroe during one of the panel discussions. “We may be operating in very traditional industries in construction and engineering but if we don’t embrace digital change then the very future of the industries we serve is in danger.”
Chris Acheson runs a company called CADshare that offers construction and mining equipment manufacturers a cloud based e-commerce platform to help them sell more spare parts. “The explosion of technology in our everyday lives it’s resulted in higher expectations from our customers in terms of how they expect to be served” he said. “The self-service culture is not the future – it’s here already and our customers want us to make it as easy as possible for them to deal with us. If we choose to ignore this then they will simply go elsewhere as what they really value is the solution that will require a minimum amount of effort.” He went on to highlight a report from Forbes which presents the opportunity that new digital technologies present while also concluding that a major barrier is that Senior Management have not done enough to understand the opportunity and as such cannot translate this into the value that these new technologies will bring for their organisations.
This skills gap in the construction and engineering sector was another recurring topic of the day. In order for us all to be able to navigate this new digital world we need to both re-skill our existing people and ensure that the industry is an attractive option for our young people.
Timothy Hegarty of BeIMCRAFT was another contributor to the event and his presentation highlighted how through connecting with a young audience in a language they understand we can make the industry relevant and engaging. The BeIMCRAFT concept is founded on the popularity of the MINECRAFT game that is very popular with school children. BeIMCRAFT takes the MINECRAFT concept and develops it so that children gain an understanding of how the construction industry works in real life. If you try and construct a building without foundations it will simply collapse – as will a road without the adequate base layers.
It also teaches them the importance of insulation and efficiency in construction by highlighting the energy lost from poorly designed buildings. The tool also focuses on the very important health & safety message that the industry has and shows young people why this is important. This was highlighted in a very real way through a video interview with a young user of the game from Mayobridge Primary School. The learnings that he had taken from playing the game were remarkable. As was his assertion that before he played it he would never have considered the construction industry as a future career but the ability to use all these technologies had convinced him that it would be a great industry to work in.
The event also included presentations detailing how digital technologies could be used from a marketing perspective to shorten sales cycles and increase client engagement during the design process. Gary McCausland from the Richland Group demonstrated how the creation of engaging 3d animations of new developments increased the possibility to sell off plan and maximise the value secured from projects.
Finally we’ve all undoubtedly heard how the robots will be taking all our jobs in this new digital world. There was some good news in this regard from Steven Wood who highlighted the emergence of Cobotics – where human beings work alongside robotic technology to maximise efficiencies in construction projects. This was brought to life by the story of SAM 100 from a company called Construction Robotics. SAM 100 lays 3,000 bricks per day – which is 6 times more than the human average. The interesting part is that while SAM 100 is putting the bricks in place a human being is needed as well in preparation of the mortar.
And that sums up the theme of SMART Construct and the message that we should all take from it – there is a huge opportunity with digital technologies for us to improve productivity and efficiency. It’s about understanding the technologies that will be most relevant for our businesses – and interestingly that requires that we stop focusing on the technology for a while and instead ask ourselves what the future challenges for our business are.
Once we’ve got these answers it will be far easier to see how technology can help our individual businesses to continue to grow. Steven Wood of Digital Catapult highlighted a resource that we can all use to help, with the launch of a new Technology Readiness Level (TRL) benchmark in early 2018. This tool will allow companies to assess where they currently sit on the technology adoption journey and will suggest the most appropriate actions for you to take to move along the scale.
Plans are already underway for SMART Construct 2018 and details will be announced early in 2018. Speaking about this Naomh McElhatton said “SMART NI is all about digital education for businesses. We are already plotting and planning next year’s SMART Construct. There’s a huge demand and appetite for this information and we will keep you up to date with the latest industry insights and best practice”
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