Willmott Dixon’s Eureka! moment
“Construction will change more in the next 10 years than it has in the last 80,” according to Willmott Dixon’s, product improvement and innovation manager, Steve Cook.
Cook, who’s been with the construction company for 18 years, facilitates its research and development investment programme, called Eureka!, which takes applications and funds ideas from employees.
Launched in May 2018, the innovation initiative provides a platform for Willmott Dixon employees to put forward concepts in an attempt take the company, it’s supply chain and the industry forward.
“We all want to work for a company that’s progressive, innovative and fast-moving. A place that does things differently. Eureka! provides a tool and a mechanism for our people to help us be that company.”
There’s no budgetary cap on ideas the business may fund during the programme’s quarterly funding rounds, and no specific amount set aside.
Employees fill out an application form clearly defining the problem they’re looking to solve, the factors that result in this problem, and why it’s worth solving. The application is then sent to relevant stakeholders and checked to see that doesn’t overlap with other similar initiatives, before being submitted to Willmott Dixon’s board from approval.
The business will give people resources, tools and time away from their traditional roles in order to develop their idea through to delivery. Since the programme’s launch, 12 applications have been approved with research and development currently underway.
Robotic vest, BIM, drones
One of Eureka!’s successful applications was with US robotics firm, Eksobionics, to purchase and trial an exoskeleton vest across multiple sites which costs around £6,000. The Eksovest, which was discovered by design manager Chris Townsend on a trip to the US, ensures safer lifting leading teams to feel less exerted.
The vest began its company-wide journey at Willmott Dixon’s Cardiff office, before being opened up to trials across England and Wales in order to better understand the benefits of it for the business and partners.
Cook said the response to the vest was “very positive” and as a result one of the firm’s supply chain partners is taking steps toward offering the vests for hire.
Townsend is also currently researching the benefits and opportunities a bricklaying robot could offer the industry.
Drones are often cited as the future of the construction industry. Cook said: “As an industry at the moment, despite reports being issued, we haven’t really understood drones and how they can benefit our workflow at various stages.”
He continued: “We have a site manager who is also a fully-insured commercial drone pilot so what better person to utilise these skills to help us as a business understand the potential benefits that drones can really bring us.”
Willmott Dixon is currently looking at technology to solve a large problem in the industry caused by service strikes, when they hit the mains of electricity, water or gas. It can be a health and safety issue and can lead to significant costs and disruptions to communities.
Cook said: “At the moment we undertake many physical surveys and obtain historical records from utilities companies to identify known services and drainage runs, all of that is then coordinated and plotted on a drawing. Despite having robust procedures in place, there is always the residual risk that information can be overlooked and human error can be a factor.
“We’re looking at taking that 2D drawing and bringing it into a 3D BIM [a process which generates and manages digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of locations], 3D plotting the services on a 3D model which enables us to then set exclusion zones through geo-fencing, and then having an excavator with a GPS sensor in it linked to the model and a sensor on the bucket of a digger and an alarm in the cab. If you’re in the digger and you move the bucket into a zone where a service is, a warning sound will go off.”
From traditional to progressive
“From the public’s perception, the construction sector is often perceived as being very traditional and low tech in the way we go about things, which is far from the truth” said Cook.
“As an industry we continue to experience a huge shortage of people and skills, all against a backdrop of one of the lowest construction employment levels ever. We’re competing with every other sector out there to attract the best talent and bring fresh blood into our industry.
“We’re hoping Eureka will set us apart, increase the speed of adoption of good ideas, embed new ways of working and help move the industry onto become more progressive and advanced in its approach.”