If the construction industry wants to unlock its full potential through digital transformation, the next five years are essential, says Steve Radley, strategy and policy director of the Construction Industry Training Board
Anyone with a smartphone knows it’s easy to be seduced by the allure of technology, and the construction industry is arguably more susceptible to excitable predictions than other sectors, which were quicker to recognise its potential. With construction having to an extent missed out on the so-called “third industrial revolution” of IT, there is the danger of being overly optimistic about how far and fast digitalisation in construction will help it to address the many challenges it faces.
At CITB, we’ve invested a great deal of time and resources investigating the potential of digitalisation in construction and are as excited about the future as anyone in the sector. New technology can make construction cleaner, greener, more productive and more inclusive; it’s too late to worry about whether or not we should “embrace” digitalisation because it’s already here, and would be virtually impossible to avoid even if we wished.
It is already apparent that technology is changing the way the construction industry works. The use of drones has become increasingly common on construction sites, being used to improve survey data, make the process of surveying more efficient and get safer access to dangerous or hard-to-reach places.
Plant simulators of the type recently used at the National Construction College in Bircham allow trainees to practise operating excavators, cranes, crawler dozers, telehandlers, tractors and dumper trucks without causing wear and tear – whatever the weather.
Then there is Building Information Modelling, which incorporates VR and AR to design and build with greater efficiency and sustainability.
The difficulty with employing a term like “digitalisation” is that it is so broad: indeed, CITB’s Digital Skills research found it means different things to different people. And, although many companies want to utilise new tech, much of the technology already employed within construction is far from cutting edge – drones, for example, have been around for years, as have augmented and virtual reality. Drones, VR, AI – all of these are in a sense just hardware and software. By far the most important essential of digital transformation is the effective collection of data itself and ways in which it is shared.
There are a number of inhibiting factors that prevent companies – and in particular smaller firms – from fully embracing new technology. One of these is of course cost. Augmented reality headgear, bricklaying “co-bots” and 3D printers don’t come cheap; it’s all very well talking about long-term efficiency savings when many companies are endangered by wafer-thin profit margins and a lack of capital investment.
Even when a company can afford to invest in digitalisation, there is the question of who will have the skills required to take advantage. The costs of training new and existing workers can be off-putting, and there is another issue: many young people whose tech skills would be an asset within the construction industry remain unaware of its charms. The industry is doing a great deal to demonstrate to young people, those from non-traditional backgrounds and those in other industries that construction is growing, has vast potential for progression and is a fantastic place in which to work, but we need to do more. We will be picking this up in a major campaign launched this August.
Just as importantly, industry, government and education and training providers need to understand what digitalisation means for how we prepare people entering work both in the newer roles, and in the traditional roles – and also how we retrain those in existing ones.
So if we accept that digitalisation is the future, how far do we still need to travel? Subject to economic conditions – never easy to predict, let alone in the current climate – it seems likely that the next five years will see technological adoption evolve then speed up – but only when the seven conditions for the adoption of innovation and technology are embedded. These are:
- Technological feasibility.
- Relative costs of capital investment vs labour.
- Management and workforce capability.
- The level of competition.
- Common standards for technology.
- Demand for use of modern approaches.
- Levels of investment in research and development.
CITB’s Evolution or Revolution? report suggests that we have some way to go on a range of these conditions. Best practice is needed to help industry evolve understanding of the value of digital and the skills and training required; at the same time, leaders and managers must be empowered to take calculated risks and drive new approaches.
CITB has already committed some £7m to support industry through investments in digital skills, offsite construction and immersive learning. The CLC Future Skills Strategy will provide more details on how we can take this critical work forward as a whole industry. The technology is already available; it’s the people, with the right skills, who will ultimately determine how successfully and extensively that technology is applied.
Strategy & Policy Director
Construction Industry Training Board
Tel: +44 (0)344 994 4400