Enterprise Ireland’s John Hunt tells PBC Today that digital transformation is the key to improving productivity and cutting waste in construction – and discusses how BIM technology is opening the door for many SMEs to compete on a larger stage
“Across Europe, the recession had quite an impact on the capacity of the construction sector, so we’ve seen, whether in Germany, France, the UK or Ireland, lots of people leave the industry, not so many people coming into the industry and people retiring,” says John Hunt, Enterprise Ireland’s senior market adviser for the construction sector.
“As our economy picks up – and that’s happening across Europe now – we’re seeing an increasing movement of labour to try and fill the gaps.”
Meeting the challenge of improving productivity and increasing capacity when the number of people coming into the sector is much lower than in the past has been one of the “key motivators” behind the adoption of BIM and digital technology.
Whereas England and Scotland have used BIM Level 2 to mandate its use on centrally procured government contracts (there is no explicit central BIM mandate in Wales), Ireland has had a different experience of BIM adoption, with it occurring more organically, Hunt says.
The National Development Finance Agency had a €1bn-plus programme of public projects that had BIM technology as a requirement but there were also big private sector clients, such as Intel and Apple, as well as large pharma companies, that had large, complex projects well suited to BIM.
Many Irish companies, of course, have one foot in the UK and that organic adoption has set them in good stead. In 2017, an industry survey conducted by Construction IT Alliance (CITA) and Enterprise Ireland revealed that 76% of AEC respondents possessed confidence in their organisation’s BIM skills and knowledge.
“BIM has been the door opener to structuring and digitising information in a way that allows other software and hardware companies to interface with the sector,” Hunt says.
“In that vein of productivity, what we’re seeing probably more than other area is software companies and software-as-a-service companies coming into the market and saying, we can create an app or a piece of software that will make processes more efficient or more productive.
“Then there are a number of companies in the project management space who are using dashboards for better client engagement. You have companies like Initiafy, which have software to reduce the administrative burden on onboarding labour and such-like.
“There a number of companies doing mobile field management, so it’s getting the data out of the model to the people out on the sites to give them the information in mobile platforms.
“That’s where the innovation is coming from. BIM is facilitating better information at the right time, in the right place, for the right person.”
BIM and DFMA
Another area where BIM is having a major impact is design for manufacture and assembly (DFMA).
“We’re seeing the offsite companies working with far better data sets, whether that be info from a model or laser scanning of buildings,” says Hunt.
“It’s also enabling software companies to come in and see what we do and find automated ways of doing things that we’ve done in a very traditional, 2D manner if you like, with lots of waste in terms of time and labour input.
“It really is that transaction time – not the transaction of goods or contracts – it’s the transaction of information. “If you look at the volumetric offsite organisations, these are the companies who are really embracing digitisation through their supply chain and getting much, much smoother transactions between their suppliers.
“It’s a really good place to look in terms where the industry could go, where we’ve got the supply chain all very neat, all very vertical. Accuracy and completeness of information is really helping.”
BIM boost for SMEs
BIM’s focus on efficiency, automation and collaboration means smaller companies – who are often more agile and adaptable to cultural change – have increasingly been able to compete with larger organisations at the design level.
“They don’t need 20 or 30 people to do the production schedules; this can be automated. It can be knocked over in hours rather than days and days,” says Hunt.
“And the QA is all built-in as well. You can get scripts and algorithms that will do a lot of this now – how good is my information; how complete is it? There’s a lot of verification and validation tools coming into the market as well.
“There’s never been more pressure on trying to do things more productively because of cost of labour and also availability of labour. Partners who have that experience, who’ve made that transition, who can deliver projects productively and accurately, who have embraced and can work with the technology, are those in pole position.”
Tech on the rise
The advance of technology in all areas of our lives shows no signs of abating – and construction is no exception, with the rise of drones, VR and 3D printing. Hunt says this disruption could be crucial in addressing some of the industry’s biggest challenges – as well as offering a wealth of new opportunities for those willing to embrace the frantic pace of change.
“Drones are a really good example. What you can scan now with a drone, what would have taken weeks or months can be days. That’s a big saving on labour time and cost – but also the accuracy of the information is far easier to validate and verify, and to use,” he says.
“It’s not just the collection of the data; it’s how that information is processed and transferred into a format that other people can use. We’ve got a company called Headcount that’s developed an app that takes scan data and turns it into model information in a second. A few years ago, that would have been a very manual process that would have taken days and been quite labour-intensive – and again, the quality would be hard to assess.
“Now a company has come in, done some research and developed a tool that turns that into minutes, not days, with consistency and reliability.”
The nature of digital technology also opens up the world like never before.
“The reach of construction companies has really been revolutionised. You can address multiple markets simultaneously – that’s one of the characteristics of companies we’re working with at the moment,” says Hunt.
“In the past, it might have taken a company 10 years to build up the capability or manpower to go from Ireland to the UK, to the US.
“Now we see small businesses scale and grow in the first three years with a product or app being supported or marketed from an HQ in Ireland.
“With digitisation, you can get people working in different markets or jurisdictions. If you’re working on a digital platform, you can pass it to the office in Malaysia overnight and someone else can work on it and it can come back. Technology isn’t really a respecter of borders or boundaries; it’s a solution that can be very accessible.”
But while technology is opening up the world, we are also living in period of major political change and uncertainty, not least over Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with Ireland and the wider EU.
For Hunt, this is undoubtedly a challenge – but uncertainty is a fact of life and can often be an engine for positive change.
“The enemy of innovation is complacency. When you don’t need to change, you become very ‘uninnovative’,” he says.
Senior Market Adviser, Construction Sector
Tel: +44 (0)207 438 8700