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This blog is written from Bryden Wood’s Built Environment Matters Podcast. Despite its vast size, the construction industry is well known to be one of the least digitalised sectors in the world. While there are pockets of the ecosystem pushing technology in areas like DfMA, Kanban and Just-in-Time (JIT) systems, the majority of construction remains relatively undigitalised. At Bryden Wood, we’ve long been committed to the pursuit of digital innovation and construction tech. From our digital design configurator apps for schools and housing, to our transformational, cross-sector work with platform construction (P-DfMA), our goal is to use smart technology to advance a better built environment. We’re always excited to talk to other industry players who share our goals, focus and passion for modern methods of construction, driving improvement by embracing change and leaning into construction technology. We caught up with Craig Lamont, Chief Commercial Officer for Australian digital specialists, asBuilt, and found out how they’re using construction tech in smart and unconventional ways onsite. Lamont doesn’t believe construction’s lack of digitalisation is caused by a lack of industry uptake of technology. Instead, he thinks it’s because the industry is oversubscribed to the idea of finding a silver bullet to solve all the ills of a construction site. asBuilt believes that the solutions needed by the sector are already available, and that by unlocking sites via technological empowerment of the workforce, the use of construction technologies like spatial mapping and IoT, and a shift in thinking toward humanity and long-term value, we have the power to truly advance the industry for the betterment of everyone involved.
To begin, we can use digital technology to offer more advanced ways to conduct onsite processes which aren’t normally digitalised, such as counting rebar. Using construction technology in this way facilitates benefits like on the day sign-off, with confirmation that the correct tonnage has been installed. asBuilt believes the construction industry’s core problem lies in connectivity, and that we need to be evaluating where we should be looking to unlock connectivity on construction sites. That makes this a technology landing issue, rather than a technology platform issue. In other words, what’s important here is where the technology lands, and why that’s effective.
On a broader level, this type of work relates to the current industry conversation surrounding the ecosystem of connected digital platforms that are starting to emerge in construction, with core connective pieces beginning to come together. These new software platforms are focused on stitching together other software products and allowing them to talk to each other in a particular way. While there are lots of companies solving problems in isolation, asBuilt say it’s the work of aggregating the data and bringing it together, causing it to be viewable all at once, which will create the great unlock needed to transform the future of construction.
Lamont doesn’t believe this unlock is going to happen at client level, and says he doesn’t think the industry should focus its effort on chasing the people with the money to impart digitization. He’s also concerned about people focusing too heavily on potentially incidental uses of technology within buildings, which, he says, ultimately won’t contribute to solving the bigger picture problem. He talks about his experience working within the design and construction industry in Australia, and the way contractual risk is pushed down onto contractors, who then push it further down the chain. This is problematic, he says, because the great unlock we’re seeking in the construction industry is going to come from those lower tiers, with people like the rebar tradesman, the electrician and the plumber.
Bryden Wood agree that one of the key issues blocking the progress of the industry is the struggle to try and get digital construction technology down into the supply chain through the massive long-tail of small suppliers. The large general contractors and consultants have already adopted digital to quite a significant extent. However, getting construction tech down to the smaller contractors and lower tiers on a construction site remains challenging. Without their involvement, we aren’t gathering valuable site data, which simply evaporates. Therefore, the logical question becomes, how do we engage those people?
asBuilt believes we need to find a way for those workers to use construction technology onsite without even realising they’re doing it. In this way, we’ll unlock more technology, more often. Lamont believes that what we really need is something to change the entire world at once, and suggests the use of mobile phones and QR codes to achieve this. He doesn’t believe more BIM is the answer to the industry’s problems, explaining that a drawing numbering system isn’t going to help the worker installing rebar. Instead, he says, onsite solutions should revolve around getting workers who are already using technology like mobile phones, to use that same tech in different ways, aiding and improving onsite construction processes via photographing, scanning, etc. Moreover, he also advocates incentivising the use of technology in order to boost worker engagement. Having everything pre-logged back at the site-shed could mean that workers no longer need to fill out end-of-day paperwork, enabling them to go home earlier instead.
asBuilt believe it’s these types of changes which will ultimately create the necessary unlock with platforms and technology. Suddenly, we’ll be using construction digitalisation all the time, and we’ll start to see platforms emerge which aren’t thinking at the level of the consultant, but are addressing some of the more specific and prevalent construction site issues instead. One such issue is illiteracy. We need to begin targeting the many construction workers who can’t read particularly well, and figuring out practical ways we can get them to use construction technology. These are the types of changes which will unlock the sub-trades and the main contractors, ultimately leading to an unlocked construction ecosystem.
At the moment, there are lots of buzzwords in the construction industry around digital technology. These include terms like AI, machine learning and quantum computing. However, all of them require data, and that data needs to be collected and mapped spatially. While the industry is excited about the general digitisation of the built environment, asBuilt feels that what we really need to be focusing on is spatial mapping. Knowing at what point a photograph was taken unlocks where the data lands and therefore adds value. It’s at this point that data becomes truly useful information.
asBuilt’s spatially connected database, Vault, enables them to consider an entire digital ecosystem. Working with the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the company is currently using cameras and other technology to map point of sale flows through a spatial model, enabling detailed knowledge about the amount of money flowing through tills and bars at particular points. While it’s true that there is a lot of advanced and valuable work that can be done with these types of permanent installations, we also need to carefully consider the impact of spatial mapping technology on construction sites. With the example of a photograph, we can check to ensure the photo was taken, and the worker also benefits knowing his job has been done. However, spatial mapping can also be used to evaluate things like crane hook time and positioning, in order to drive productivity benefits. At Bryden Wood, our work with kit-of-parts architecture and platform design for manufacture and assembly (P-DfMA) dramatically increases speed of assembly onsite. As a result, we’ve seen that inefficient hook time becomes an increasing problem, leaking value from this powerful MMC process. It’s important that we use technology to improve these types of issues.
Ultimately, the construction industry needs to find a balance between prescription and innovation. Lamont believes we need BIM 19650 in terms of language and connectivity to ensure we’re getting the consistency of outcome we require. However, he doesn’t think BIM on its own is going to save the day in terms of driving industry change. He says both prescription and innovation have a role to play. With respect to 19650 and UK standards, he says there’s a recognition in Australia that some kind of standard is needed to meet the requirement, but currently people are doing a little bit of their own thing. This is creating confusion surrounding outputs in terms of what people are receiving and why. Currently, after designers create the concept design (including testing related to the engineering), things get handed over to the contractors to de-risk the program, make changes, and make the design work for them. They then deliver what’s left back to the client. Lamont doesn’t believe it’s necessarily the best process.
On the other side of things, there are governments trying to lead the path to innovation. In the UK there’s Level 2 BIM. In Australia, different states are following different approaches. In Queensland any government project over 50 million dollars must be fully BIM detailed, with a set of requirements related to output and deliverables. That said, he believes that the contracting market is engaging for compliance, not necessarily to be more efficient. He talks about Transport for New South Wales, who’ve come up with an amazing, digital engineering framework to set the output requirements they want the industry to meet. Unfortunately, he says, it’s gotten lost in some of the government context of what’s going on there. The framework is trying to drive large infrastructure programs of work because they’re so complex, and this feeds into health and schools, as well as other government-led projects. On the other hand, in the commercial sector, he believes profit has been the primary motivator. He notes that as the delivery of BIM as a professional service becomes more and more commoditised, value will inevitably be lost, alongside the sense of why the thing is being undertaken. Rates are also increasing, he says, with less work being done.
Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) and Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) are driving new ways of thinking in Australia, with uptake driven by schools and health. However, Lamont says these methods aren’t in alignment with the old ways of making money, and so MMC costs remain high. There are also things happening purely from a compliance perspective, such as aluminum cladding replacement programs. These are government pieces of work, specifically looking for innovative techniques. Ultimately, there are similar standards to 19650 coming into play. Level 2 is coming in with the language. There’s also a relationship in terms of how smart contracts are being tied into those sorts of outcomes. However, much of this evolution is happening in a piecemeal way.
asBuilt believe the situation is too big for the government to bring entirely under control, and say there are cost overruns for the benefits they’re realizing, which pertain to the inputs. Lamont calls it a case of swings and roundabouts, noting that without action you get nothing, yet once something is prescribed it seems to be too much. There’s a balancing act required. However, he says that people are genuinely looking for ways to de-risk programs of work and make additional profit. He also notes that programs and build times are coming down, and that people are looking for ways to modularize and make things work. All of this requires proper digital coordination. The tier one contractors are trying to drive innovation in a different way, he says, and the smaller players are looking for a point of difference.
Conversations about DfMA are also starting in Australia, with some large contractors setting up their own DfMA plants. However, it really comes down to two, distinct schools of thought. These revolve around the use of either an owned or distributed model. The former focuses on ownership of the whole integration chain, the whole vertical delivery model. In this instance, a player owns the factories and designs, pushing out what’s required for the kit-of-parts to consultants, and achieving an output that way. On the other hand, some contractors don’t want to tell others how to innovate and would prefer to let the innovation ride. They’re looking for ways to bring all of that information together digitally, aiming to get the best out of the innovative companies who are pursuing ways to be smarter all of the time.
In terms of Australia’s vast size potentially impacting on DfMA advancement, in actuality, 90% of the population live on the east coast. The current focus is on Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, as well as Perth in the south-west. In regional Australia, there is a certain amount happening with trains. Despite the fact that distance isn’t necessarily the difficult obstacle one might expect, there’s still a long way to go with DfMA in Australia. Supply chains and clients are pushing, but it’s still too expensive for contractors who have cost and time pressures. They haven’t yet landed on a perfect solution in terms of an owned or distributed model.
Just as Bryden Wood’s focus lies in our Design to Value approach to construction, for asBuilt, adding value is also a key priority. As such, onsite construction IoT is a key area of interest for the company. Lamont feels we need to slow down to go faster here, deploying simple, smart construction technology solutions to unlock sites. Afterall, construction sites are temporary in nature, and contain vast amounts of data which isn’t currently being tracked, but easily could be with existing tech. In reality, there’s no need for 5G technology in order to obtain the data we’re looking to gather onsite, Lamont says. Still, that’s primarily what we’re hearing about these days. In actual fact, what we really need are low-power devices to gather information about simple things. We need to know where a particular machine is located, whether it’s vibrating, how noisy it is, and what the light and temperature readings are.
All of this information can be done on devices that are already in plentiful supply. All that’s needed is something like a LoRaWAN network to connect to. LoRaWAN is a long-range, wide-area network on a different frequency band to WiFi. As a result, it doesn’t compete with cell phones and other devices connected via WiFi on construction sites. As LoRaWAN is very long-range, it enables construction sites to be quite remote, representing great potential for Australia where it’s not unusual to travel five to ten hours to a site. Europe is already covered in LoRaWAN with something like 10,000 gateways across Europe, over 1,000 in Australia, and around 800 in the U.S. One barrier which presents for the latter, is that their cellular network, which runs across states, makes it difficult to talk between networks. As such, we need to remove that network issue from IoT construction. In the case of LoRaWAN, private networks can be established, in addition to the public ones. Lamont believes these private networks are where we’ll see real genesis and IoT emerging in construction. WiFi is full, however this would make millions of IP addresses available to us.
This type of technology is currently being looked at with great interest by mining sites. With just a single gateway, it’s possible to achieve five or ten kilometers of distance, picking up gate sensors and various pieces of important information. This might include things such as whether someone is walking in an area they shouldn’t be, or even checking to see whether a structure may have moved over a three- or six-month period. This is the type of information that’s truly valuable onsite, and we should be interrogating it. However, it’s important to keep in mind the temporary nature of sites. Once they’ve gone, we’ve lost the opportunity to gather that simple, valuable information that can tell us what’s really happening. It’s this data that enables us to do better designs, and better implement modules etc. Of course, much of what we need to do is perfectly achievable with existing technology, but we can also be confident that as tech continues its rapid advancement, what we’re using a year from now will be significantly better than what we’re using today.
The temporary nature of construction sites also impacts the role of IoT onsite. In fact, much of the information we’re able to take from the process, and many of the details about how things are being put together, has already disappeared by the time the concrete has set and we’ve got the finishes on the walls. By that point, we’ve often begun discussing other, internal elements, such as technology related to the temperature of the building.
Ultimately, this means that many important uses for construction technology are being missed. For example, we should be tracking how much movement there was in a column as it was being pulled in, and the bending. We need to be asking questions about how the concrete cured. This type of work has an important impact in terms of predictive maintenance. If we understand exactly how the concrete cured and what went on in that process, we’ll know what stresses might be left in the building, thereby creating a long-term, high-value impact of that data. In fact, some of the sensors needed to undertake this type of work are incredibly inexpensive. They could easily be placed inside a concrete mix, and would simply broadcast for the next five years uninterrupted.
At Bryden Wood, we anticipate that this type of construction technology work could also fuel the next generation of concrete mixes, as well as influencing the type of AI technology that’s starting to plan schedules and program onsite. Logistics could also be affected. Essentially, there is a massive, potential long-term benefit to gathering this type of data. Unfortunately, while we already have the ability to use IoT successfully to gather substantial amounts of this type of useful information, investment for this type of work isn’t necessarily present at the moment. Currently, fund managers are focusing more on internal building technology. This results from a desire to achieve a better return on investment, and a focus on short-term impact over long-term benefits. While this type of technology might seem more exciting in some respects, it isn’t necessarily as truly valuable as the data sets we could be unlocking from construction if we approached things differently and looked at other ways of consistently gathering beneficial information from our construction sites. asBuilt’s platform Vault presents a good example of how powerful things become when we can actually visualise what’s happening.
IoT can also be helpful for construction site managers, enabling them to easily track and keep record of information which might ultimately save them time or produce other benefits. Lamont recalls an incident whereby a local council reported a noise complaint early in the morning, thought to be caused by the construction site operating outside of consented hours. Using triangulated sensor data, the site manager was able to definitively establish that his site was not responsible for the noise, and was further able to offer insight into the actual cause. Moreover, he was also quickly and easily able to provide a report of the problem.
In this particular instance, we see technology reducing stress for a busy site manager, who didn’t have to waste time investigating the issue further. Here, construction technology enabled people to quickly and easily return to work. In another example, onsite sensor cameras were able to detect overnight theft and the captured images were successfully used by the police. Using IoT in this way also creates a differentiating, reputational advantage for contractors, as these companies are seen to be running very tight, lean, safe and productive operations. This could ultimately enable such contractors to win more business, forcing other players to adopt these types of beneficial practices in order to keep up.
Speculating about where industry progress may lead us across the next decade, Lamont predicts that the industry will gradually come to the realisation that the technology platform itself is not the solution to construction’s problems. In fact, he thinks that by simply shifting focus to the question of why we’re doing what we’re doing, we could see substantial growth in the
marketplace. His hope is that within the next five years we’ll see a much larger portion of the industry engaging with these processes, as we remove technological hurdles such as network connectivity and engagement. He would like to see more of the sub trades and supply chain making successful requests to use more technology. In ten years, he hopes to see the industry building the same amount in five days that it currently builds in six and a half. We need to use technology to enable construction workers to live more normally, he says, with businesses profiting as a result. The answer isn’t simply to do more jobs, it’s to accomplish more while simultaneously improving quality of life for construction workers. McKinsey have discussed suicide rates in construction previously, as well as other difficulties the industry is facing. One of the core goals here is to return time back to the construction worker.
Lamont says much of this work is about humanising the workforce and humanising the workshop through technology. Of course, the industry’s aging workforce and skills shortage means that we also need to make the industry more attractive for workers in order to overcome other problems we’re facing. We need to be clever in our approach to getting workers to engage with technology, because many of them are frightened and reticent about its adoption. The solution lies in enabling access for people. Lamont says it's important that consultants understand that and believes we also need to focus on getting more consultants back on construction sites. People need to better understand the practical impact of their design decisions in the field. For example, why detailing doesn’t quite fit when a worker is sitting at a boom lift nine metres off the ground and drops the spanner. This is how the power of kit-of-parts thinking begins to tie in with everything else. If engineers and architects would go back to construction sites out of sheer interest, Lamont says, we could get back to the beginning of what we’re doing and achieve more human results. Ultimately, it’s a focus on connection and humanity that will facilitate the great unlock for the construction industry.
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