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Learn from the experts – Is Covid driving more use of tech in construction?

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Even though work is starting to ramp up a bit here at Peace, I still made time to sit through an international webinar on Construction Technology last Thursday – and I am glad I did.

Organised by Construction Europe and hosted by its editor, Mike Hayes, there were three genuine experts giving us the benefit of their knowledge. They were: DR JAN MISCHKE, partner, McKinsey and Company; PER BOSTRÖM, CIO, Skanska; and AL CERVERO, SVP, technology & revenue creation, Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

Dr Mischke noted that companies have been taking 3-5 years to create an “IT backbone” but are now finding that it’s too big and complex for their needs.  Far better, he said, to look where there is a combination of opportunities and needs and then to work in these (smaller) areas for quicker results.

Per Bostrom began by saying something that I think is evidently true, namely “we have more to do in this field – we have just started really.  The construction industry is behind the curve compared to other sectors but there are some signs we are catching up.”

All three agreed that one of the major problems is that tech is simply not integrated enough across companies and sites and this is clearly an issue that needs addressing by the industry at large. 

Al Cevero said that although there is a lot of tech available, its adoption at present is more about improving efficiencies rather than the bottom line. Both matter though, and quick pay-offs on smaller-scale, individual projects will demonstrate that efficiency goes hand in hand with improved profitability.

That said, Mr Cevero also claimed that the statistics suggest there are still obstacles to be overcome, because, “49% of non-adopters say the tech is too expensive and a further 49% say they don’t have people with the necessary skills.”  One solution, proffered by Dr Mischke, is for more consolidation of companies till they reach the scale where they can afford the investment required in tech.

When it comes to the contractors’ perspective, all three noted that BIM and Digital Twins* work well, but for the boots on the ground the problem is not that the tech isn’t available (it often is), but it’s how it is used that makes a difference.

The discussion then moved on to skills shortages, with all three agreeing that tech equipment manufacturers are using skills shortages as a reason for people to buy their kit.  Mr Cevero noted that the “tech for repetitive stuff” is here now and has potential for bringing new people into construction, citing an example of someone who is disabled and physically can’t work on site but who now can sit at home and operate machinery.  More specifically, and this is of great interest to recruiters like Peace, he believes the industry as a whole has to address not just the numbers around staff shortages but also skills shortages more generally amongst those who are working on our sites, yards and factories.

When it comes to 3D construction, again there was a consensus. Al said AEM has a 3D-printed excavator (how cool is that!) but that value in 3D at present is in pre-fabrication rather than on-site.  Jan and Per agreed, with the former noting that, “it’s not really going as fast as some would like.”

Finally, when it came to the key, current issue, namely whether the Covid-19 crisis is driving more firms to use ConTech, Jan said that McKinsey’s research suggests that two-thirds of construction leaders believe it is, with “digital going on steroids” and changes being forced through as people realise it’s “do it now or we go bust!” However, one very encouraging aspect of this drive to change behaviours and practices is that, as he put it, “so-called unskilled people are stepping up to the mark.” 

I believe that the pandemic will force substantial change – we’re seeing it and hearing about it in our discussion with our clients here in Scotland.  How fast and how far it goes remains to be seen, but I expect it to be dramatic in the next few years. 

Chris Peace, MD, Peace Recruitment

*A digital twin is a digital replica of a living or non-living physical entity. 

P.S.  The entire video of the webinar is available here.  

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