Digitising the industry is easier said than done, but how far has the sector come? CN convened a panel of experts to find out

James Albiges, Zen | Ernie Bardrick, Clarion Housing Group | Rennie Chadwick, Osborne | Jami Cresser-Brown, Bryden Wood | Lizzie Featherstone, Taylor Woodrow | Lilly Gallafent, Cast | Matthew Hurrell, ISG | Russell Lloyd, RLB | Andy Radley, Morgan Sindall Infrastructure | Mark Richardson, U+I | Helen Samuels, Network Rail | Binyamin Ali, Construction News (chair)

Last month, a group of industry experts gathered for dinner at a central London hotel to discuss one of the most pressing issues of the day: digitisation.
The debate, held in association with connectivity and cloud-hosting provider Zen, and chaired by Construction News, examined both the barriers to digital adoption in the industry, as well as the progress being made.
Kicking off the conversation, Matthew Hurrell, a director at ISG, said it was vital for clients to take the lead and make it clear to the supply chain what their expectations are.
“Naturally, when there is a drive from the client, it helps,” he said.
“It also helps push it down the supply chain. It makes them see that it’s something that they have to do, which is really important if we’re going to be successful in the digital arena in the future.”
Clients’ role
Lizzie Featherstone, head of business information tools at Taylor Woodrow, agreed. “Most people in my business know that we need to change, but certainly for some senior people – and that goes for other businesses, too – they don’t know how to do it,” she said.
“But once a client comes on board and says ‘you have to do that’, they will figure out a way.”
Of course, if clients have a role to play with digitisation at all, they will need to understand what is involved, how new technologies work and the outcomes that can be delivered.
For major clients with multiple priorities and an entrenched culture, that can be a time-consuming process and one that is not without its difficulties, according to Network Rail engineering director Helen Samuels.
“Network Rail is huge, and the BIM journey we have been on has been too slow,” she said, adding that the fact Network Rail was not covered by the government’s 2016 BIM mandate didn’t help matters.
“I’m not saying that was the reason, but it may have contributed to it.”

Ms Samuels added that BIM had been used for Network Rail projects for some time, but that a lack of understanding within the organisation from teams involved after the build phase meant the benefits hadn’t translated from construction to operation.
“We were in a situation where we were doing some really good BIM stuff on our design-and-build projects, but it was all supplier-led,” she said.
“That meant that it was great for the design and construction, and the benefits were realised project by project, but what we were finding was that what we were getting at the end was a lovely [digital tool] and we didn’t have anywhere to [incorporate it]. It wasn’t necessarily compatible with our systems.
“Our asset managers loved it when they saw it but didn’t know what to do with it. We just didn’t have a strategy.”
An internal BIM strategy is now in place for parts of the organisation, Ms Samuels added, but designing it had been a balancing act: she acknowledged that Network Rail needed to take the lead, but said that it had to be done in a way that didn’t suppress innovation in the supply chain.
“Once a client comes on board and says, ‘you have to do that’, [firms] will figure out a way”
Lizzie Featherstone, Taylor Woodrow

“I think the challenge is how we can provide that client-led framework, which I passionately believe is the right thing to do, but do without stifling innovation,” she said.
“At the moment, we’re not quite there yet. I am also positive, but I think the utopia of a client-led approach where the client really knows what they’re doing and can keep up with the technology [is difficult to achieve].
“We can’t keep up with technology in the same way that the supply chain can because we’re not as fleet of foot. At the moment, we’re still too supplier-led.”
Starting with the end in mind
However difficult digitisation may be, the panel was clear that the potential benefits were worth the effort. Andy Radley, head of digital engineering at Morgan Sindall Infrastructure, recalled a project he worked on where all parties were clear about what they wanted to achieve from the outset.
“I was leading a strategic group in North Wales where the client was happy to bring the capex and opex together, and have discussions about the asset that was going to be handed to them,” he said.
“We looked at the end goal. And for them, it was statutory maintenance, which is about which parts of the building could kill or hurt somebody.
“So we agreed a solution collectively, which gave us something to aim for in terms of information to hand over at the end.
“Having your ducks in a row up front helped us to make decisions. It meant we could get really rich information to work with.”
Ernie Bardrick, head of design and technical at Clarion Housing Group, agreed that digitisation could lead to efficiencies, in particular when it came to repairs and maintenance.
“The way we’re running our business now is all on the information and the intelligence, so we know where our asset is and what we’re going to spend money on next,” he said. “[For example] is that gas boiler lasting seven years or 10 years?

“We have spent a considerable amount of money revisiting what we’ve been doing to the extent that I’ve got new asset-information requirements, BIM requirements, and they’ve all got to come together.
“We know that there is a particular product that, if we install it, we won’t have to visit that house for another seven years. It’s about getting the right information to the right people at the right time.”
Mr Bardrick added that there was the potential to go much further, but that it would require investment in talent.
“There is an emerging group of people who are coming out of this whole thing – the digital information systems managers,” he said.
“They are the people who are going to interrogate the data and use it in smart ways. So why do we need to monitor air-conditioning units? You can stick a 4G sensor on them and it rings a centre once a month and says ‘I need my filter changed’.”
Private-ownership problem
However, Mark Richardson, delivery director at U+I, said additional issues needed to be resolved when it came to privately owned blocks.
“The problems that we’re looking at concern a future of high-rise private ownership where we all know that the life expectancy of lifts, MEP services and so on are finite,” he said.
“You’re going to have 300-to-400 private owners in a 50-storey tower and at some point you have to replace the heating. How is that going to be done? No one is having that debate.”
Lilly Gallafent, a director at Cast, added that in housing in particular, it can be difficult to sell the benefits of digital information for a building’s operation if a housebuilder’s business model is simply to sell up as soon as possible.
“With a lot of private for-sale residential, they don’t operate assets,” she said. “They don’t care at all. Why care about a BIM model for a building that you’re going to sell?”
“The challenge is how we can provide that client-led framework, which I passionately believe is the right thing to do, but do without stifling innovation”
Helen Samuels, Network Rail

However, Ms Gallafent added that the rise of investor interest in alternative housing typologies, such as retirement housing and build-to-rent, which typically involve a developer or investor holding onto a building for a long period of time, is leading to a greater focus on maintenance.
“Obviously, with the way the market is changing, with a focus on later living and BTR [build to rent], people are much more interested in BIM models and all those types of things,” she said. “We are having those conversations much more now.”
Another barrier to adoption identified by the panel was how the case for investment in digital technology could be made to company boards.
That is a particular issue for large, traditional contractors, most of which operate on wafer-thin margins and, by their very nature, have to be very tight on costs to the business.
“The starting point for me in terms of barriers is when you get the board to switch their perspective on technology from it being about cost to [being about] an investment,” said Osborne chief operating officer Rennie Chadwick.
“Nobody in our industry invests at the level that high-value manufacturing does. We paint ourselves into a corner by looking at everything as a cost.”
The productivity argument
The trick, Mr Chadwick continued, was to argue that digitisation has the potential to boost productivity.
“If you look at it as an investment in productivity, that argument is usually fairly easy to make,” he said.
“Personal productivity is dead easy to do and then you look at project perspective, which is a bit more difficult.
“The investment case isn’t the difficult bit – it’s how you get it to land and how you evidence the impact.”
Picking up on the point about how construction compares with other parts of the economy, Jami Cresser-Brown, a director at Bryden Wood, said that the most progressive industries were happy to invest in digital research and development, even if it wasn’t immediately clear which benefits the initiative might yield.

“The use of technology shouldn’t be transactional,” she said. “We shouldn’t be just going to a tech company and asking them to design something.
“We need to have the trust to try to develop the technology without necessarily having the end goal in sight.”
Ms Cresser-Brown added that her own company was already investing in the development of new digital tools – and that once they were ready, Bryden Wood would make them available for the industry at large to use.
“We’ve been developing a number of apps that we will release for the industry,” she said.
“They’re easy-to-use design tools, and they’re encoded with the spatial logic that complies with building regulations and national space standards, and so on. So wherever you start, that is encoded in your design.”
Supply chain challenge
Of course, if digitisation is to truly transform construction, it will have to be embedded throughout the supply chain. That is more difficult for construction than for, say, the automotive sector, where the supply chain is far more integrated and responsive to the digital strategy set by major car manufacturers.
In construction, digital take-up is far more hit-and-miss. “We work across a lot of different stakeholders and the inconsistency is just horrendous,” said Russell Lloyd, national head of cost consultancy at RLB.
For his part, Mr Bardrick agreed, but added that in his experience, subcontractors could be far more progressive on digital uptake than clients and main contractors.

“Some of those guys are more in tune with tech than the main contractors,” he said.
“I was on a site where the drylining contractor [and] every one of his guys had a tablet, and every day via Dropbox they had the most up-to-date drawings.
“The guys that were project-managing it had to go back to the office to use their laptop to access the same information.
“Some of these guys have seen the bigger picture.”
Such examples should be seized upon and used for a wider communication strategy for the industry as a whole, said James Albiges, general manager for networks and communications at Zen.
“If you’re talking about the supply chain, you’ve got to train them and encourage them,” he said. “You’ve got to show them why it is worth their while to do it.”
“The investment case isn’t the difficult bit – it’s how you get it to land and how you evidence the impact”
Rennie Chadwick, Osborne

He added: “On one project, we digitised technical submittals. Every job has probably between 100 and 500 technical submittals.
“By digitising that and sharing it with the supply chain, it was much quicker than doing it by paper.
“They could see that it was beneficial and that it was good for them. If you can show them that it’s easier than doing it the traditional way, you can bring people with you.”
So, while the panel identified multiple barriers that must be overcome – and there was wide acknowledgement that construction still has a lot of catching up to do compared with other sectors of the economy – it was also clear that digitisation was now firmly on the agenda.
Reaping the full benefits will take time and won’t be easy, but the conclusion was that the industry is, at last, moving in the right direction.

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Going digital: Where is construction now? – Adam Branson – 2019-06-27 06:50:02

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