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The challenges of digitising construction



In virtually every industrial sector out there, businesses are having to embrace higher levels of disruption in order to survive. But as digitisation becomes a necessity rather than an option in areas such as manufacturing, construction has been slower to react.

by Adam Savage



But why is that? What has been preventing this particular sector from keeping pace? Although there are many possible reasons for this, the increasing complexity of construction is generally considered to be one of the contributing factors. Buildings are becoming more complex, and therefore so are the projects to construct them, and this causes supply chains to become increasingly convoluted too as more specialist suppliers are required to feed into the design process.

It’s not hard to see why construction is widely seen as ripe for disruption. Builds running behind schedule and coming in over budget are alarmingly common, while labour productivity levels remain low. The industry is also well known for being highly fragmented, with project teams often operating separately rather than collaboratively on a job.

What can digital deliver?

All of this can potentially be tackled through investment in new digital technologies and processes. For example, drones can be used to map out possible sites to build on, 3D printing is enabling some materials to be produced quicker and cheaper and VR has emerged as a useful tool for training and safety, as well as an inviting new way of bringing together those fragmented relationships through immersive, remote communication.

What’s more, the demand for a productive construction sector is only going to get higher as populations rise further and urbanisation continues to increase, meaning not just more property is needed, but more innovative solutions for building in more tightly-packed areas. Attitudes to sustainability and environmental preservation are also changing both across society and within industry, and this is filtering through to construction as well. There is growing demand for new builds to be more ‘green’, and this can be challenging or even impossible to achieve through traditional means.

Solutions do need to be found, though. Buildings now account for 32% of global energy consumption and according to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), building emissions need to be cut by 80–90% to restrict the global temperature increase to 1.5C.

Digitising the design and construction industries could help unlock their energy efficiency potential significantly. A report from the IPCC outlines how smart technology, drawing on the Internet of Things (IoT) and building information modelling (BIM), offers opportunities to accelerate energy efficiency in buildings and cities.

Moving forward

However, for any of this to happen, there has to be more of a willingness to change. New research from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) in the UK has identified two key challenges for industry: to address the lack of understanding of the business opportunities that digital transformation brings, and to stimulate the leadership required to communicate why the investment is needed, identify and adapt the digital technology needed for their business, and then make it happen. These challenges aren’t just limited to the UK – construction firms worldwide would also benefit from taking similar steps.

There is no lack of support available either. Many technologies and services exist that can help construction companies take their first steps into the digital realm, with many more on the way. It is also crucial that these firms adopt a positive attitude towards digitisation, as it will require everyone, from the business leaders to those doing the heavy lifting on site all pulling in the same direction in order to work.

If and when the construction industry does manage to find its way through the current slowdown and match the progress that is being made in other areas, technology will surely have played a critical role in that development. But it cannot be thought of as the sector’s ‘silver bullet.’ The industry must also look outside of its comfort zone to find the answers it seeks – only there will it find the skills, knowledge and ideas that are also crucial to ensuring we have a built environment that’s fit for the future.