Technology is key for companies that want to build into the future

Construction has been slow to embrace the digital elements that many other industries have, writes Quinton O’Reilly

23rd June, 2019
Technology is key for companies that want to build into the future
Chris Emery, senior manager for vertical construction, Topcon Positioning Group, presenting at CIF DigCon
At a group panel discussion at CIF DigCon were Chris Toomey, vice-president major projects, McKinsey, Boston, USA; Chris Emery, senior manager for vertical construction, Topcon Positioning Group; and Emmet Ryan, editor, Connected, The Sunday Business Post

As it’s a slow, labour-heavy industry with lots of components, it’s difficult to figure out ways to greatly increase the speed in which a building is constructed while adhering to the many regulations that are required.

At best, the profitability from construction projects tends to range around the 1 per cent or 1.5 per cent mark, meaning the margins are quite tight.

This is why, instead of speeding up certain processes, the focus is on cutting down the mistakes and errors that crop up in a construction project. One company that is championing this is Topcon Positioning Group, which introduced a near real-time construction verification through the new GTL-1000.

With the overall goal of having a complete, connected workflow, where collaboration between other software and hardware vendors is the norm, Topcon believes that if construction companies adopt this, they will significantly improve the way they approach projects. What it’s addressing, said Chris Emery, the senior manager for vertical construction at Topcon, is the rising costs and delays that follow when mistakes pop up.

“One of the big areas of cost and time delay is mistakes on-site and clashes,” he explained. “Verification is a way of identifying that, but typically, it has been done infrequently, maybe at the end of major construction milestones, because the on-site data-capture techniques are expensive and have often not been factored into the delivery programme.

“You need separate, expensive hardware, and a specially trained team because it requires different techniques and skill-sets to the standard engineers on the site that are just doing layout or survey work.

“What we wanted to do is increase the value of the engineer that’s on every job site. Every project has a surveying instrument, utilised for traditional setting out and spot measurements. With the GTL-1000, we are merging the total station with a bespoke, highly accurate laser scanner. This delivers near-instant scanning capabilities into the hands of the site engineer, who will continue to just use one device to carry out daily tasks.”

Part of the draw is that the scanning functionality is incorporated into existing instruments. That and the simplicity of the product itself means that it doesn’t require any major investment of time or money in training and other necessary elements. The fact that a site surveyor or operative on-site can start collecting 3D point data which is fed into the verification system allows them to quickly highlight potential errors or mistakes that if not corrected now can cause serious disruption further down the line.

Using the GTL-1000 in conjunction with Verity from ClearEdge3D allows for rapid visual feedback on errors and deviations. Spotting and correcting these issues can make a world of difference to a construction project’s bottom line and, best of all, it can be done on a daily basis with the GTL-1000.

Emery continued: “You’re making near real-time verification decisions, which has just not been possible before because traditional laser scanning often takes a day or two, then takes a significant amount of time to register that data into the project coordinate system and then run the Verity analysis. If it’s done by a third-party contractor, you’ll often get that two, three or four days later, and you’re not doing the data collection every day.

“So, you can end up on construction projects with a mistake happening that could prove extremely costly down the line, that you’re not going to know about until three or four months in, depending on when you next take scan data. By this point, it’s too late.”

At a recent talk at the Digital Construction Summit in Croke Park, Emery spoke about the problem of verification and the costs of not noticing mistakes until it’s too late. His enthusiasm for the product was mirrored by the nodding heads in the audience during his talk. Being able to cut down on these mistakes will not just mean that projects can be delivered on cost (or close to), but they can be delivered on time.

“It really struck a chord with understanding what’s happening on-site in the same day as it’s being built, it’s just not been possible previously,” he said. “Now it is, and all of a sudden, contractors and subcontractors that start using this . . . have better control on cost, time and clash issues.

“They could mitigate these before they come into effect. Therefore, there isn’t going to be a cost increase or a time delay so we’re going to deliver on time, particularly on taxpayers-bought infrastructure where there’s always high pressure about going over budget.”

While every company should be thinking about the future, and Topcon is no different – its mantra is “always one step ahead” – there’s a balancing act between being ahead of the pack but not too far. The issue is that, if you offer something too advanced, the disconnect between it and what is currently used will be too great for companies to make that leap. The way to win them over is to make the leaps manageable yet large enough that there is a major difference – something easier said than done.

“We need to be at the forefront of technology and solutions, but they need to be just ahead of where the industry is so they’re easily adopted and it’s not a big hurdle,” Emery explained. “We don’t want to be prophets, and we don’t want to be four steps ahead, talking about things that could be possible in 15 years’ time, because no one is going to buy something that isn’t ready.”

Disconnect between levels

While maintaining that balance is one challenge companies like Topcon can face, it’s far from the only one. Sometimes the politics and mindset of a company can be the barrier preventing it from embracing newer technology or methods. For one, there can be a disconnect between top-level board members, like chief executives, and those a level or two below who are using the equipment that will take the company a step forward.

“There are various chief executives of major contractors and organisations within construction that will come out with their big announcements or in annual conferences, saying we’re a digitally enabled company, and we’re embracing innovation,” Emery said.

“The challenge we find is that when we’ve come down a level and explained that we have solutions to help them do what the chief executive has said is their mission statement, the various divisions within the organisation have acted as a barrier. Hopefully this will change as there’s currently a reluctance to really embrace it.”

There can be a number of reasons for this, with Emery providing one recent example. For one company’s project, its project manager and commercial director were interested in their new verification workflow tools. However, they were asked to keep it quiet as other departments, like the survey department, have their own profit and loss (P&L) and make most of their money charging their services to the same company’s other projects.

Despite this being a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, changing it would mean removing a revenue stream from them, and changing that mindset is more complicated than it should be.

The Topcon GTL-1000 can help cut down mistakes on a project

“This way of working in silos and working to separate P&L means these types of situations crop up, and therefore you can’t really get that widespread adoption,” Emery said.

“What we’re doing is working on one specific project with this workflow. Then, once it’s embedded and they’re using it because they’ve got their own budget, they will then start talking about it at other levels. Otherwise, they’re going to get grief from their colleagues and other divisions about taking profit away from them, even though it’s it’s the same money for the same brief.”

This approach can place some unnecessary obstacles in the way of companies embracing modernisation because, if they don’t, other companies are waiting in the wings to jump forward – and not just traditional construction companies. The likes of Amazon and Google are throwing their weight behind construction and, with the vast amounts of revenue they have, experimentation is easier for them.

Google is building a smart city just outside Toronto that’s driven by technology, while Amazon bought an off-site modular housing company and is looking to provide social and low-cost modular housing prefabricated, with Alexa embedded in each house. These two players entering the industry marks a real challenge for construction companies, and places more pressure on them to embrace digital skills and tools.

“These organisations are all about technology, and about new ways of doing things,” said Emery. “If our existing and well-established organisations that are massive in size only have a profitability of around 1 per cent or 1.5 per cent, they’re going to struggle unless they really change their ways and start adding profitability and productivity to their business. It’s an inevitable change and either we do it as an industry or the juggernauts are going to come in and do it for us.”

Addressing the skills gap

In saying all of this, there are positive changes that are coming into play. For one, while the industry is certainly a dog-eat-dog world in terms of winning work, there is talk about developers and clients placing more weight on the technical proposal of a bid as opposed to just the commercial side of it.

It doesn’t remove the bottom-line consideration but it’s a step in the right direction. Emery is thankful that Topcon is a technology provider and somewhat removed from the adversarial side of things, but it’s clear the industry needs to change if it wants a healthier environment with less hostility between the different players.

The other area to be encouraged by is its efforts to address the digital skills shortage in construction. For one, Topcon has a strong relationship with TU Dublin, offering its expertise and equipment to the technological university. It also works with secondary school students in the UK through ‘Class of Your Own’s’ (COYO) Design Engineer Construct scheme – an accredited learning programme that inspires them to become the next generation of digital construction professionals.

That and more is being done to not just encourage young people to take up a career in the construction industry, but give workers the tools to use the next generation of digital services and equipment.

“What we’re seeing is big organisations, contractors and consultants taking apprentices straight from the COYO initiative,” Emery said. “They’re bypassing university and giving them a job at the age of 16 or 17, then putting them through their own academies to give them the additional skills they may need. There’s a big shift towards that. We’re very committed to training that level . . . and the new engineers and surveyors coming through that are thinking in 3D anyway.”

An example of that 3D thinking comes from games like Minecraft, which has inspired a generation to build and create – something that will only grow and expand through its augmented reality app Minecraft Earth – as well as growing up with connected hardware and software.

Emery says the technology and skills gaps are very much interlinked and the companies that recognise and embrace both of those, as well as investing in these areas, will quickly rise to the top.

“The ones that are going to do the best are the ones that are going to embrace that . . . and become the true champions of technology and innovation,” he said. “They will be the ones clients want to use and talented individuals want to work for.”

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