Getting smart to build the future

Construction has been called Ireland’s least digitised sector, and that has serious implications for the industry to deliver the projects of the future, the Digital Construction Summit has heard, writes Patrick Murtagh

From left: Mark Fagan, business manager, Topcon Ireland; Patrick O'Donovan, Minister of State for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform; and Dominic Doheny, president, Construction Industry Federation Maura Hickey

It is amazing to think that not so long ago we listened to music on cassette or CD or vinyl. We communicated through letters or landline telephone. We used paper maps find our way around. Security was a lock and key, or a large man. Virtually every industry has adopted highly advanced technological changes over the past 10 to 20 years, developing and changing and either improving them or making them appropriate for the modern world.

Virtually every sector in society is now organised and enhanced through technology. Additionally, technology has blurred the lines between various sectors. Consider Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, or Apple Music. Technology has brought vast business opportunities for changing certain sectors forever. Perhaps the only sector not developing at the same rate is the construction sector.

This is a sector that is still living in the past; a sector dominated by men, continuing work in the same manner as they did for the past 20 or 30 years. The problem now is that the world has moved on in many different ways. Critically, the path into construction is perceived to be less attractive than it once was; university is seen as a more lucrative education than an apprenticeship.

Furthermore, with the availability of such advanced technology, time and money is being squandered in the construction sector. Building Information Modelling (BIM) and prefabrication have become critical additions to the construction industry which must be adopted.

The Digital Construction Summit took place at Croke Park on Wednesday, demonstrating the fundamental changes that must take place within the construction sector in order to realise the digitalisation of the construction industry.

Patrick O’Donovan, Minister of State with the Department of Finance and Department of Public Expenditure, noted the skills shortages within “one of the least digitised sectors.” Speaking with regards to the national development plan, he said: “It is impossible to deliver a programme of works on this scale without sufficient capacity within the industry. We are already seeing construction costs increasing and skills shortages emerging. And it is incumbent on the government to challenge the sector to rationalise its delivery methods so that we can deliver the ambition contained in the NDP.” He added that likewise it is incumbent on the sector to challenge the government as well.

Ciaran O’Connor, State Principal Architect at the Office of Public Works, said that it is a distinct necessity to change the DNA of the construction industry. “BIM is coming, but it’s not a silver bullet,” he said. “Sometimes new things are oversold, but I would urge people to be critical of the issues involved. I don’t see the level of savings being realistic.”

According to O’Connor, the industry needs more foremen and fewer quantity surveyors on site. “I say that very straightforwardly,” he said. “You need people who know how to build. The [quantity surveyor] should be in the office doing what he needs to do, but this take of having guys on site who don’t know what they’re building and not directing staff is not good.” O’Connor said that this leads to slips in standards and compliance. He said that this is common practice and that more discipline is needed, referring to the American system as a model example whereby contractors are registered and, if struck off, may not continue in construction. He added that “the state must give a procurement of the level playing field, matching cost, quality and programme in our evaluation and have a proper dispute resolution.”

Finally, O’Connor addressed the new near-zero energy buildings regulations, which stipulate that publicly-owned buildings must have high energy performance. This legislation comes into force after the 31st of December 2018. “That means OPW cannot rent a building that does not meet that standard, and I don’t think people understand the repercussions of that, and it’s part of a wider element; there are major renovations that have to be done in a certain way,” he said. He added that this could save Ireland from additional carbon taxes that will likely be paid in 2020 to 2022.

John Foster, European Business Development Manager for BIM with Topcon Europe, stated that by 2030, the world’s population will grow to 8.2 billion. He said this requires around $60 trillion in investment globally in the construction industry. He said that currently there is only capacity for $24 trillion, meaning that there is a major need to enhance productivity. “Technology will help,” he said. “We’ve seen some really disruptive technology over the last five years and also process improvements towards the automation of construction.” However, he added that, over the past 25 years, productivity in construction has been flat, and in real time, it has perhaps even fallen by around 10 percent. “As we all know, construction has a long history of low investment compared to other industries,” he said. He highlighted that construction is the largest global manufacturing industry, but the least automated.

Foster said that a new mindset of honesty and openness is needed to share challenges and to partner. Referring to Topcaon’s own solutions, Foster highlighted reality modelling, layout and QA, GPS and monitoring. “It is essential to integrate with our partners,” he said. He spoke of smart partnerships in devising solutions.

This came down to the right balance of productivity and mutual goals. Topcon have partnered with Autodesk in the area of layout and verification in the field. It has joined with Intel to work on UAV platforms. Viasys provide 4D and 5D simulation infrastructures, while Bentley has partnered with Topcon for project delivery and asset management. Foster said that these strong partnerships have brought synergy to project developments. “It is about automating digital construction processes right through the project lifecycle through surveying, engineering design, through constructable model development, and then combining that with data capture within the connected data environment,” he said.

BIM was perhaps the most discussed topic at the summit. It is clear to see why it is so important with regards to saving costs on planning and construction. A lot of time is wasted when planning does not equate to implementation on a construction site. BIM allows architects, engineers and construction workers to visually assess buildings to more adequately plan, design and construct.

Danielle Dy Buncio, founder and president of VIATechnik, Chicago, USA, said: “BIM is the foundation of so many other technologies.” She said that there is improvement across the board within the construction industry when BIM is implemented. She said the biggest improvements were in the areas of communication and improved ability to plan construction phasing and logistics. “This is huge,” she said. “So much of construction does things for the first time in reality. Any other industry practices before they do it in real life. That’s not the route we need to take any more.” BIM allows for the planning of each phase of the logistics before it is implemented, saving time and money.

The main issue is the skills shortages developed from the shrinking talent pool. Dy Buncio stated that 70 percent of contractors struggle to find qualified, skilled labour. Graduates of IT, computer engineering and design are not being recruited by the construction industry, opting instead for the apparently more lucrative digital positions in Facebook, Google and other software firms. This may be down to the fact it has taken so long for the construction industry to even consider implementing new technologies and BIM, while simultaneously, the wider tech industry has expanded rapidly in the lifetime of young, skilled graduates.

Maria Mahon, chairperson at Initiafy, spoke of how contractors and construction companies can attract female and millennial talent into the construction industry. She said that the need for talent has never been more significant. “Construction is one of the leading economic drivers for this country, but the shortage of skills could create a significant risk to planned projects, including those relating to Ireland 2040,” she said.

So what does the industry need to do to attract the right kind of talent? Mahon suggested that the competitive space for attracting talent is going to be fierce, as a variety of industries will be competing for the same group of talent. “There is a communication and delivery challenge,” she said. “There is an education job to target your audience, both to communicate with them and tell them what this industry is about now, and just how exciting the opportunities are. There’s also challenges in delivering on those promises.”

She emphasised the importance of branding, specifically employer branding. “An employer brand is a derivative of branding. In this case the consumer is your potential employee or your existing employee,” she said. “Your employer brand represents the way your organisation’s prospective applicants, candidates and employees perceive you as an employer.”

Reaching the right audience requires an analysis of the mediums from which they consume. Millennials and Gen Z (those born in the mid 1990s to 2010), consume the majority of their information through social media, specifically Snapchat and Instagram. They also watch a lot on YouTube. Traditional forms of advertising are obsolete, and so if the construction industry is to reach their desired target market, it is going to have to reach them on their terms.

There is great potential for the construction industry to achieve its goals with regards to Ireland 2040, but a totally new approach is going to be required. The skills gap is the most important area to be addressed in order for the right technologies to be adopted and implemented. Once this is achieved, BIM can take hold and save contractors time and money, generating a smoother and more dynamic construction industry to meet the demands of a growing population and harnessing one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe.