Jill Guthrie, digital manager for the North, shares why Willmott Dixon is trying to digitise the construction industry, how tech is advancing the firm’s projects, and the biggest challenges construction is facing in the race to adopt.
Here’s an edited transcript of Jill’s presentation from PlaceTech Trend Talk Birmingham.
For those of you who don’t know Willmott Dixon, we’re a family owned construction business, one of the largest in the UK. The majority of you will live very close to one of our sites. We work across all different sectors, we do have housing, blue light, Ministry of Justice, and more.
Why are we trying to digitise the industry?
For those of you who have worked in construction, you’ll know that it’s probably one of the most wasteful industries you can work in; we are not efficient. Twenty percent of every project is re-work and, with that, I found this awful statistic that construction, in terms of digitising the industry, is actually lower than fishing. I don’t know a single thing about fishing, but I know that we should probably be doing better than the fishing industry.
Back in 2011, the Government issued a Construction Strategy Document. Within that document, it said that we need to reduce waste by 50%. It had loads of different things that we’ve got to do as an industry which we can only do by digitising it. Within that document, that was the first time that BIM was mentioned.
BIM stands for Building Information Modelling. What that means is that, back in the day, you would have your 2D information, you’d have your drawing boards, now, everything is modelled in 3D. With that 3D model, we can then collect very specific data on how that building is going to be maintained. That data can plug into a facilities management platforms and that’s how you can start to manage your building more efficiently.
We are now working in the 3D environment. With that comes lots of challenges in terms of processes. We have so many different standards that have been created since 2011 all the way up to the mandate. Centrally procured Government projects have to be delivered in a BIM environment, and whilst trying to digitise the industry is hard enough, but trying to get people to use and manage the flow of information is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever come across.
Examples of digital construction
- Immersive environments. We’ve probably all seen these in some form, maybe in gaming situations. This is where we walk our customers into the building, and we can start to look at clash detection. If we’ve got some M&E that’s clashing with the structural frame, we can start to talk to the consultant to eliminate it.
- Laser scan surveys. We go round the building, scan it and then we can use it for construction verification. If you’re part way through a building on-site, we can go around, we can scan it and we can clash detect that against the actual model that it has been built off. Again, we’re trying to reduce error and waste.
- Drones. We’re trying to find a way that we can use them within the industry, even if it’s just for communication like a recent project of ours. The project was based in Anglesey, people who live there are very protective about Anglesey, rightly so. We just did drone footage every month to show them the progress and they absolutely loved it and bought into the project because we’re keeping them informed.
Suite of online platforms
Part of the problem, we found, was we have so many different systems, not just within Willmott Dixon but the industry as a whole. To be able to find out if we’re actually making efficiencies on these projects, none of the information talks to each other, which is a logistical nightmare when we’re trying to say, ‘we’ve saved x amount on this project because of these different variables’.
We created what’s called a Mi Project platform. Within there, this is implemented in every project, there is a trading element to it, there’s a health and safety element so we can track and log if there are any accidents on site. There’s an after care for our customers, so if they have any defects they can plug it into the platform and it reads across the project wide. It helps us collate lots of data.
(See image below) Anything that is green are the technologies we are using, anything that’s orange we’re testing and anything that’s grey we haven’t yet moved in to. When we looked at this a year ago, probably half of what’s green was grey or orange so we’re making really good progress.
Case study: Menai Science Park, Anglesey
This BIM project is an innovation centre on Anglesey, there’s lots of different startup tech companies who all want to be able to manage and grow in their own space. The biggest problem we had on this project was we had lots of very specific KPIs, the biggest one was the customer wanted to have as much local spend within our supply chain as possible. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been to Bangor or Anglesey but it’s not a big place, there’s not a huge amount of supply chain there.
We spent months upon months of upskilling and training through workshops, then we’d do project-specific workshops just on data. As an M&E consultant, we need you to provide information on all of this; this is what the data is, this is what it’s going to be used for, this is how you can then use it for future use. Now, because of all that upskilling, there’s a whole supply chain in North Wales that can do other projects to this level.
One of the biggest problems we have is M&E, nothing to do with the mechanical electrical engineers as such, it’s just the amount of information we need from them and the amount of data. Once we’d handed the project over, we tested it against a similar size project which was traditional, so all 2D. We reduced the requests for information by 63% because we were asking for more information up front and getting them involved earlier, and eliminating so many issues before we actually get to site.
Digital take off
- Using tech to reduce job time. The image that you can see is a steel fabrication model and it’s colour coded based on the weight of the steel. The surveyor did this in eight days, a manual approach. We tested it alongside and it took us 3 hours. There’s a huge amount of savings in that for us, just by clicking a few buttons.
- Virtual Reality headsets. Another KPI we had was a target of 15% occupancy on this project at handover. We built a little viewing platform, we had the cardboard goggles, we popped our phone in and we let the different stakeholders and potential tenants have a look at the space, and see what interested them. That was it, it secured 37% occupancy two months before handover.
- The customer of the project had a facilities management platform, but they wanted to take it a step further to look at the energy efficiency of the building. We worked with a tech company which had no experience in construction, and they came up with this fantastic platform where we give them the 3D models, all of the asset information is in there and then they could create a traffic light system. These screens around the building show red if rooms are using too much energy, green if they are energy efficient and orange indicates they might want to have a look at what they’re doing. We’re looking to roll this out across lots of our other projects within the business because it has been so successful.
- Procurement is one of the biggest challenges within the industry. If it’s a two-stage tender or if we’re at detailed design, we’re still not getting the information soon enough, we’re not engaging with our supply chain quickly enough
- There’s no policing from Local Authorities on the information we’re handing over. They don’t have the infrastructure yet to be able to receive all of this information
- Blockchain. I don’t know a huge amount about it, but I think if we can get smarter with contracts and if we can link some of this information to better payments, that will be much better for our supply chain
- Wearable technology. We’re starting to see it in magazines but we’re not quite seeing it on site yet. There’s lots of hard hat technology where we’re seeing Augmented Reality being used so workers can see where they need to start setting out information, which is great, but we’re just not seeing it move quick enough on to site
The Eureka Fund is a research and development fund. The purpose of the fund is to enable anyone within the business to identify a problem which could possibly be solved by tech, we didn’t want it to be just senior managers or directors, they have a different vision to us, they’re seeing ideas that we don’t necessarily see.
There’s no monetary cap on the fund, and so far, we’ve had 12 ideas that have been pushed through and the Eksovest, a robotics vest which ensures safer lifting leading teams to feel less exerted, is one of them. I believe that someone went on holiday to America, saw this being used, put forward the idea, the company bought one and now we’re testing it out across the entire business.
View Jill Guthrie’s presentation slides below
PlaceTech Trend Talks Birmingham was delivered in partnership with Node, Mills & Reeve, and FUTURE:PropTech.