Putting colleges on course for a move into the digital age

Access to the latest technology is an issue for third level students, but leading manufacturer Topcon is there to help, writes Jason Walsh

23rd September, 2018
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The 2018 CIF Annual Conference will be held on October 2, in Croke Park in Dublin

Delays in the adoption of technology and automation are hampering the development of digital construction in Ireland, a leading manufacturer has said.

Tighter budgets in the years following the 2008 downturn is the main problem, said Karol Friel, sales manager for I Topcon Positioning Ireland.

Friel also said that there was a pipeline issue as fewer students were seeking careers in construction and engineering. “The biggest problem we have in Ireland is the lack of students choosing to go into construction at third level,” he said. “That’s because of the downturn in construction over the last ten years: if they’re not picking up construction or civil engineering then they’re not coming out the other end.”

Friel said Topcon also has concerns that those students who do progress into industry were unable to keep up with the changing nature of the job as colleges have been unable to familiarise them with the latest technologies used in so-called ‘digital construction’.

“We’ve also found there is a lack of investment in these courses,” he said. “What they’re lacking in is the latest equipment from the technology side. Colleges need to have access to the latest technology that is used on construction sites to avoid Ireland being at a disadvantage compared to our European colleagues.”

Founded in Japan, Topcon has presences globally, giving the company a helicopter view of construction.

The changing face of construction

The image of construction as a conservative industry that is slow to pick up new technologies and methodologies is a fair one, he said, but change is coming. Across Europe, digital construction technologies are increasingly common, with hardware and software hitting the site, from tablets to unmanned aerial vehicle drones (UAVs), all driving efficiencies on site.

It is these technologies that students need to be familiar with to work in the industry today, said Friel. “On a modern construction site, a common instrument would be a robotic or one-man total station. Basically, what that does, in your hand you’ve got a CAD drawing on a tablet and it will give you the CAD drawing, down to millimetres, to show where you can set a building, curb lines, utilities and so on.

“A few years ago, that would have been done manually with chalk lines and spray paint. That took a huge number of people, so this speeds up the process,” he said.

This kind of surveying technology is available to third level institutions, but the stall in construction has seen investment drop, he said. Now, with commercial construction in full swing, and with more building expected as the government unveils its housebuilding plans, construction workers and engineers need to be familiar with the technology.

“Some universities and colleges still use chains, measuring tapes and road wheels. When students go on their year out or into industry, one of the first pieces of equipment they’re handed is the total station and they’ve not a clue how to use it,” said Friel.

Karol Friel, sales manager for Topcon Positioning Ireland

To get around this problem, Topcon is offering training courses to third level institutions, free of charge.

“We created our own courses. We have had 300 or 400 students come through it to date. Over [the course of] two to three days we can give them a beginner’s level introduction, and then if they want move on to intermediate and advanced level that can be done too.”

Friel himself spoke to students and found they were unfamiliar with the kind of equipment that is now expected on larger sites. “It was off the back of that that we started to talk to universities and we found that they didn’t have the budget to buy it, so we started to come to the universities, a couple of days per semester, and bring the equipment, free of charge, to give them some practical examples of the technology in use.

“The main issue for colleges and universities is that budgets are really, really restricted. We could see the skill shortage that was there [and] we see it as our social responsibility, it’s something Topcon are committed to, not just in Ireland, but on a global level. We envisage that the industry will begin to see the benefits over the next few years as graduates enter the workforce with relevant and practical experience using the latest tools and technology.”

New build

Digital construction will become key in Ireland, Friel said, particularly in light of the skills shortage that developed after the 2008 crash, with construction workers and engineers among those who left the country in droves.

“The onus is on us to show the industry that this kind of technology is there,” he said. “Ireland as a whole is still behind on digital construction, but the benefits are clear. Many would still rather throw more people toward a project than [invest in] technology, but is it changing?

“Yes. Other countries have proven it creates efficiencies; there really are massive benefits.

“We can basically automate a machine on site. In the past, the operator would be very dependent on being told exactly where they need to work, and maybe have an engineer standing beside them for days on end,” he said.

Topcon’s technology allows for semi-automation of equipment including excavators, dozers, piling rigs and more, with digital terrain models (DTM) remotely sent to the operator.

The company can retrofit existing equipment, but manufacturers including JCB, Komatsu and Volvo, are also moving toward embedding and integrating technology from the factory floor.

“It’s more accurate than they’ve ever been,” said Friel.

The company wants to get the word out there at this year’s Construction Industry Federation (CIF) Annual Conference.

“Our message for the CIF [conference] is, for us, construction is moving into the digital age. It’s not the future, it’s here now,” said Friel.

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