The changing role of…contractors
Becoming the Uber of construction, data analytics as a core skill, and automation increasing the number of jobs, were among the insights shared by industry professionals in the latest part of our series on the future of working in property.
- Chris Stephenson, partner at Concrete VC
- Lee Ramsey, design management and Building Information Modelling director at Morgan Sindall Construction
- Chris Brown, director of construction consultancy Oakwood
- Roy Danon, CEO and co-founder of Artificial Intelligence startup Buildots
What are the new skills that contractors will have to learn?
Morgan Sindall Construction: The role of design and construction professionals will change significantly in the years ahead. These changes will allow projects to be delivered quicker with better outcomes from less resource. Construction professionals will harness the benefit of a data-rich environment, with analytics becoming a core skill for all contractors. This could take graphical, such as 3D, or non-graphical form allowing professionals improved confidence and certainty in decisions. Contractors will also have to develop an increasingly dynamic mindset that is open for change, as technology is enabling disruptive opportunities that will make historic, tried and tested methods of delivering projects obsolete. While there may be some adjustment to new ways of working, this will ultimately make what contractors do much more efficient and effective.
Buildots: Until recently contractors have been basing their decision-making process on tiny bits of data, which meant mainly based on experience and deep understanding of the industry. As we move forward, we will see more data become available to make the right decisions. This started with BIM which brought tremendous amounts of high-quality information into the planning phase. Now digital twin solutions provide managers with a set of tools and access to data to improve their processes and gain competitive advantage. Those who learn the benefits of data and adapt their processes to it will enjoy an exclusive growth source for the next few years.
Concrete VC: As construction companies put more emphasis on technology, as they recognise the importance of data, and as construction moves more towards a manufacturing process, we will see significant changes in the labour force. Contrary to what some may think, the prospect of automation won’t decrease the number of jobs, but rather, will improve both the quantity and quality of tech-related positions in those companies. In the future these firms will demand highly-skilled programmers, technicians, experts in Artificial Intelligence, and data scientists, until they also consider themselves tech companies first and foremost.
Oakwood: The main problem with contracting is the level and quality of information contractors have to build to, it’s uncoordinated and incomplete with traditional methods unable to validate and check it. By using 3D technology, it increases the quality of information and provides insight on another level to help de-risk jobs.
What will a contractor’s daily routine look like in 2040?
Morgan Sindall Construction: Where to start! Fundamentally, the construction industry has not significantly changed in the past 100 plus years but we are now on the edge of a sea change that will radically alter how we think and work. Schemes will be designed and built in Augmented and Virtual Reality environments prior to being sent to be manufactured offsite. This will use technologies such as 3D printing for building components and these components will be assembled by robots. The decision-making process that is so key to any development will be boosted by a sort of ‘Alexa’ for the construction industry, where the facts, data and ‘what if’ scenarios are readily available and can provide immediate answers to queries.
Buildots: Construction managers will be much more like manufacturing managers, or process engineers. We will see them using data inputted from a mixture of human and machine inputs, leaving only the tough decisions for the construction managers.
Are there examples of tech already impacting the role?
Buildots: Construction sites are far from sterile, and because of that, classic image processing methods have failed to make an impact on the industry and assist construction managers in their process management efforts. But with the latest addition of AI, and more specifically deep learning, to the available technological stack, companies are finally able to learn the environment of a construction site.
Morgan Sindall Construction: There are so many developments that are changing and improving the output of construction professionals. For example, artificial intelligence and generative design. Artificial intelligence creates real-time insight and identifies trends that we would not have spotted previously. Generative design enables all available designs to be created in seconds, evaluated based on parameters and constraints, meaning the most optimum design is produced in a much shorter time frame. This means the final design can be produced with significantly fewer iterations. This will bring benefits to our project partners, as lengthy design processes and time spent on non-viable options can sometimes frustrate non-construction professionals.
What will be the benefits of going digital?
Oakwood: As well as saving time and money, improving health and safety is a key benefit. We won an award five years ago for a project we digitally planned with 4D technology, it was a 90-day project that was done in 15 days with over 200 people on site and no injuries. Using virtual reality as a health and safety tool provides an opportunity to lay down risk markers and visualise method statements before getting on site.
Morgan Sindall Construction: We are just at the start of this digital revolution and it’s hard to predict exactly how far it will take us. However, digital construction allows us to optimise designs virtually and ensures the right information goes to the right stakeholder at the right time. At Morgan Sindall Construction, the use of digital construction has enabled 26% of projects to be ahead of programme and variations by 4%. Digital construction helps us achieve improved customer outcomes and complements our perfect delivery philosophy which is to exceed our customers’ expectations.
Concrete VC: Implementing tech across the construction value chain even with today’s bespoke construction methods and processes could increase efficiency by up to 60% (see MckKnsey report), and the sky’s the limit if we think about blue ocean type innovation where the entire value chain is industrialised.
Buildots: Turning construction into a fully tracked and monitored process can dramatically reduce cost, time and quality issues. You can either remain at high risk or make tremendous efforts to manually collect data, which often still ends with inaccurate and sparse control points. Automating these processes will reduce the efforts put into manually tracking the progress and improve the level of data collected.
When do you expect to see the tipping point for adoption?
Morgan Sindall Construction: After farming, construction is the second largest industry with the most opportunity for improvement in productivity, therefore there are lots of opportunities to adopt more modern approaches. I personally see the tipping point coming in the next three to five years. Over this period the technology will mature and will be at a critical mass, meaning seamless and bidirectional transaction of data across platforms.
Buildots: One thing I’m sure of relates to BIM. Without having a digital end product plan widely used it remains difficult for any digital processes to be implemented and widely accepted in the industry. Digital twin solutions can provide an accurate status of construction sites only because BIM exists. It would have never been possible to do so before that, and that is true for many other construction technologies out there. Currently, only the high-end companies can adopt such solutions, and until that changes the market is a bit stuck.
Oakwood: The tipping point has already been passed due to the government’s BIM Level 2 mandate. However, major advances further down the food chain, in the supply chain, need to happen. They’re behind the development curve, with many signing up to requirements they don’t understand and not having the resource, money and time to throw at it.
Who will be the winners + losers?
Morgan Sindall Construction: The winners will be those who embrace change and actively explore opportunities, in a manner similar to how Uber and Deliveroo have in other sectors. By changing the way we do things and challenging the status quo through the use of technology, contractors will be able to deliver projects quicker and with less resource but with better outcomes for customers. Design-and-build contractors who don’t adapt will find it hard to compete, as their projects will be less efficient and of a lower quality, and they will not be able to deliver the customer experience that others can.
Buildots: During a period of fast technological changes, the biggest challenge for construction companies is to integrate the latest technologies into their workflow continuously. This makes some industry seniors nervous, but this gradual change is the best way to modernise a traditional process while keeping their company values and advantage up-to-date. Companies who work with startups are always aware of what the currently available technology can do for them, which turns them into a smart customer that can demand what they need instead of what the construction tech market currently offers. Those who will fail to do so will find themselves in five years trying to quickly bridge the gap. This will be extremely painful for their organisation, and possibly too late.
Concrete VC: In 2017 Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, famously stated: “We are a technology firm.” If one of the world’s largest investment banks, an industry not traditionally thought of as tech-centric, considers itself a technology company, I believe every firm should be thinking of itself similarly. That includes construction companies, and we all know there is plenty of room for improvement, since McKinsey ranked construction second from the bottom as the least technology-enabled industry, behind agriculture. Construction companies should take notice and embrace Mr Blankfein’s mantra or they will be surpassed by companies that already recognise the potential for disruption from tech, such as Google with its Sidewalk Labs and Amazon with its recent investment into a homebuilder.