by Dr Stephen Hamil
The need for change
In 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute published the report ‘Reinventing construction: A route to higher productivity’. This report highlighted how other sectors had been transformed with respect to productivity performance. It also highlighted how the construction sector had not yet undergone this transformation. There had been a process and digital revolution in industries such as retail, communications, automotive and aerospace; however, construction, in comparison, had made very little progress over this same period. With respect to productivity, the report estimated that if the construction industry could transform itself and catch up with that of the global economy, the sector’s global value could be enhanced by $1.6 trillion.
One of the key, highlighted areas where productivity could be improved was reported as ‘infusing digital technologies’. The report from McKinsey was not an isolated report. Across the world, various government reports have concluded that the construction industry needs to standardize its processes and data structures and enable value through the use of digital technologies.
In 2011, the UK Government published its Construction Strategy which set out an approach that would reduce the cost of building and maintaining public sector assets by up to 20%. To achieve this target, they defined a set of Building Information Modelling (BIM) standards and tools for the industry to follow and use.
Over recent years, many other countries have recognized BIM as being a key enabler to acquiring better value from their centrally-procured government projects. One of the best examples of this has been within the European Union (EU). Within this specific European initiative, 21 different countries came together to research the challenge and then published recommendations in an EU BIM Handbook. This handbook gave an introduction to BIM and made a set of collective recommendations to assist public policy makers and estate owners across Europe.
The information at your fingertips
The power of combining well-structured information with the latest technologies can be seen in the leading software that is used across the world on a daily basis. Companies that were unheard of fifteen years ago are now amongst the biggest in the world. Amazon has revolutionized shopping, Facebook has revolutionized communication, Wikipedia has revolutionized knowledge collection, and YouTube has revolutionized video consumption.
In only the recent past, to find out the address or a telephone number of a location, a physical copy of a local ‘Yellow Pages’ -style directory was needed. The video below shows how now, through the use of modern technology and well-structured data in an application such as Google Maps, information about the places we visit is placed at our fingertips.
Google has created a standard information structure and has filled this information structure with data about the places we visit and live in. The Google Maps website itself has an intuitive user experience delivered through a web browser on a desktop or handheld device. From the starting point of ‘the world’, the user can quickly navigate the globe to find the location that interests them, and then quickly find the information that they require.
Construction industry impact
It is maybe wrong to give the impression that the construction industry has not started to embrace digital technologies. Due to the fragmented nature of the industry, many uses of such technology are still ‘edge cases’ and not yet ‘business as usual’. In addition, the standards defining the process behind digital modelling of information are still relatively new and not yet fully embedded in industry.
At any construction technology event, amazing advances in technologies are presented, such as augmented reality, information capture by drone, machine learning and automated construction. It must be stressed, however, that this is not purely about technology. What underpins great technology tends to be very well-structured information.
The NBS Online Viewer, which featured on the main stage of Autodesk University Las Vegas 2017, is one example of future technology coming together with well-structured data. The video below shows this in action – a linked model and specification to be uploaded to the web. This allows the rest of the project team to benefit from viewing coordinated information from the context of the 3D model. For example, an architect may upload their design and specification to the NBS secure project area. They then can invite their project team members such as the cost consultant, the contractor or the client to view and interrogate this information. The 3D model is used as a visual ‘table of contents’ into the detailed specification content.
The major leap forward in recent years with respect to information consumption is the move from desktop to cloud. In the cloud, software does not have to be installed or updated by the end user. The end user simply ‘logs-in’ and can access the solution through any modern web browser. This allows technology companies to link data and functionality together and rapidly build solutions to solve problems in a way that was previously not possible.
In addition, when working in traditional desktop software, it is difficult to effectively share information. Quite often, information files are scattered around a company’s local network and different versions must be emailed to and from project team members. In the cloud, project team members can collaborate around a single data source and set permission levels based on responsibilities.
In the 1990s, computer systems transformed paper-based working (drawing boards and typewriters) to digital. This revolutionized the construction industry with respect to the speed of information creation.
Now in 2018, with cloud technology maturing, we will see a leap in added value through increased collaboration, improved transparency and well-structured data that flows through the project timeline.