As new software applications enter construction sites left, right and centre, Better Building takes a look at some of the key challenges and changes builders can expect over the coming year.
Procore, a leading provider of cloud-based applications for construction management, hosted a round table in Sydney last year where key industry players discussed issues surrounding the construction industry's uptake of digital technology.
During the discussion, attendees delved into the conservative nature of contractors and builders and the effect on the adoption of consumer-driven enterprise technology. There was strong consensus that construction software needed to be user-friendly. In short, it needed to be as easy to use as an online banking app.
Here are some of the 'take-homes' from the meeting:
- Skills and the art of reverse mentorship
While freshly minted graduates may know the latest innovations in technology, they often lack the practical problem solving skills of their more experienced supervisors. Those same supervisors, while often great at thinking on their feet, are typically not as tech savvy as their younger colleagues. The challenge lies in getting the two groups to collaborate.
- Digital transformation in construction
Difficulties such as a lack of tax incentives are involved with digital transformation in construction. New techniques like gamification could prove to be tough for trade teachers to adapt to, so in these situations it would help to use experienced, respected personnel as the face of change.
- Energising change in the construction industry
A recurring theme is the challenge of encouraging staff to use the latest digital tools creatively, especially older, more experienced employees. Site safety practices were discussed as an unexpected area where new technology was making a difference.
- IT consumerism hits construction digital tools
IT consumerism is coming to the construction industry, but the risk averse nature of builders was revealed as a major technology adoption barrier. Construction software must be designed for ease of use, even in implementing a timecard system.
- The struggle to attract digital engineers
There are struggles in attracting new digital engineers into the traditional construction industry with fresh graduates attracted by big names like Google or the new, disruptive modular building outfits. Traditional construction outfits need to make their internal development systems interesting for new talent.
- When will building information modelling (BIM) make prime time?
BIM is great for impressing clients but of little use on a building site. The challenge lies in transitioning BIM into a practical site tool.
Keeping it Simpel
Software applications such as Simpel are also making headway in the Australian market. While it was originally created for sports management – lifesaving and childrens’ swim schools in the ACT – research was devoted to the development of the software as a construction management platform.
Kurt Robinson, CEO and co-founder at Simpel, says a few key reasons prompted the move. The primary reason is that a lot of software products aren’t user friendly and prove difficult to engage with. As it currently stands, there are all sorts of single-purpose applications, but they don’t necessarily speak to each other, meaning project management is loaded with inefficiencies. With these factors in mind, costs climb up and restrict access to larger companies.
“There is still a huge resistance in taking on technology ,which is largely due to high pricing of trying to use all these pieces of software,” says Robinson. “It’s restricted it to a lot of tier one, two and three guys who can afford it.”
More applications are being developed for accessibility and mobility, with programs like Simpel designed to work for smaller projects as well as larger ones.
A high priority for builders is safety, especially when several software applications don’t manage or isolate risk before it occurs.
“There’s going to be a continual drive to put software and procedures on site to ensure safety is paramount. As the market slows in residential, I think there’s going to be a general push for how things can be better utilised. I think for the industry as a whole, Australia is well ahead in terms of adoption of technology, but I think there's going to be a better focus on how data is captured to improve efficiencies,” says Robinson.
For a program like Simpel, Robinson suggests builders start small. Using project communication, document, and tender applications would satisfy a lot of smaller companies.
“Don’t try and take on every module at once – we’re conscious not to overwhelm people. The idea is that this system grows with your business. It’s built in a way that it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.”
“We try to bring all the pieces together in a cost effective way. I think a lot of subcontractors have had a lot of things forced on them over the years and having all these different logins going on. With our system, we build the user up. The profile stays with you. It hopefully will become easier for people to work on different projects at once,” explains Robinson.
The elephant in the room
Consumer technology develops so quickly that organisations of any size struggle to adapt their internal systems and practices at the same rate. Several organisations have had the same systems in place for the past 20 or 30 years, which often seem like permanent office fixtures and impossible to phase out.
And when issues arise that need to be solved quickly and efficiently, it’s easiest to rely on the most experienced team members with ‘old school’ methods. At the end of the day, the objective is to get the project finished. But it’s a conundrum because builders tend to be linear, risk-averse thinkers. While artificial intelligence is exciting, the reality is that for many, it’s a victory simply to get a project manager to fill out a daily report.
Take this feedback from a participant at the Procore Round Table – builders need to get the basics right before investing in flashy technology.
“A colleague was giving a presentation on time tracking tools for hours worked and showed some photos from the job site of actual timecards. One was on a two by four, one was on a burger wrapper, one was on a crumpled sheet of paper. The problems that they’re trying to solve are not always at the level of artificial intelligence. It’s the basic stuff we are still working on.”
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