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Digitisation progress, but still a long way to go, survey finds

27 October 2019 | By Andrew Pring

A survey of construction firms, from £1bn turnover tier one contractors and consultants to SMEs, has found that 81% expect to initiate plans to improve their business digitally in the next 12 months.

In the survey, carried out by construction software specialist Causeway, and presented in a report, Construction’s Digital Front Line, almost two thirds of construction professionals said an integrated design solution could help streamline their workflows, with over 80% saying that adopting technology would be a way to optimise their resources.

Causeway chief executive Phil Brown says that until design is taken as seriously in construction as in other sectors, the industry could continue to lag behind in terms of productivity.

“As long as design remains completely disconnected from construction across the project lifecycle, the real win that BIM offers will be missed and that’s a big problem,” he said. “It would be inconceivable in other asset heavy industries such as aerospace that design, build and supply chain integration are completely separate processes. In construction, they are totally separate.”

However, despite the sluggish uptake in technology, the results showed that attitudes towards adoption of new technology in design may have reached a tipping point. Survey results showed that businesses with a turnover of more than £1bn have experienced the benefits of investing in innovation, with 81% stating it reduced operating costs and 88% saying it increased employee productivity.

Just over half of large firms said that the allure of digital-focused practices had played a part in attracting and retaining new digital talent.

Brown added: “I have found green shoots of optimism are now beginning to emerge. There are signs that construction is finally beginning to press ahead with digital innovation. New technologies and government measures, particularly since the collapse of contracting giant Carillion, do arguably give some hope that as a sector, construction is beginning to move the dial.”

Construction professionals surveyed stated bid accuracy as a core issue for their business, with 68% saying this was a “major challenge”. A further 58% agreed that costing and estimating was a core challenge for any business.

The research also found that many in the industry were still relying on outdated processes such as manual inputting, invoicing and slow, often inaccurate tracking of workers. Crucially, only 54% of respondents said that they had an integrated technology solution in place for estimating and bidding.

Brown said the current culture of bidding had also had a detrimental impact on the sector: “There is no sense in awarding subcontract packages time and time again to the lowest bidder, when often the out-turn costs of these packages are 30% higher than the original bid. Low pricing leads to a culture of variations, which in turn impacts delivery and cost to the end client.”

Construction firms themselves have begun to recognise the benefits that technology allows to any bidding process, with 70% of firms stating that estimating software and collaborating around data either has or could have increased their own bid accuracy.

Similarly, just under half of construction professionals (46%) agreed when questioned that risks could be “significantly” reduced through the availability of real-time cost intelligence in estimating solutions.

David Lowery, executive director at Eiffage GC UK and Eiffage Kier, believes that the sector is “three to four years” away from reaching an innovation tipping point when adoption of new technologies such as artificial intelligence becomes standard practice, but says a number of steps need to be addressed if a productivity boon is to take shape.

“To leverage AI and machine learning, you have to make sure that the systems you have in place allow you to feed data. A lot of people haven’t invested in this at the right time. It’s really exciting for us and requires a fundamental change in the way these systems are designed. We are thinking about all of this up front, which means that we can get it right. So often in the past it has been an afterthought.”

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