Steve Martin, director of technical at the Electrical Contractors Association, looks at how the electrotechnical industry is embracing digital ways of working, despite some barriers.
Advances in software, in addition to a tidal shift in the role it plays in day-to-day life, are radically changing the way installations are designed, developed and managed. And not only in the electrotechnical sector – the construction and facilities management industries are generally embracing new ways of working digitally through software and apps.
But the embrace is not always whole-hearted. When new technology emerges, a familiar trend can occur among contractors and clients alike. While the benefits of new technology can be clear, there can be a lack of speed or even a reluctance to incorporate it into projects.
This could be due to cost constraints, or a lack of information, awareness and expertise, and potentially a combination of all the above.
Taking BIM as an example, the wider industry agrees that it can reduce costs in the design/build/maintain lifecycle, and save time on projects of all sizes. It is also clear that BIM will be increasingly required by clients and suppliers in the coming years. However, few appear confident when it comes to BIM knowledge and skills, and fewer still are regularly implementing it on their projects today.
The same can be said for Building Management Systems (BMS) and the growing demand for smart buildings. Typically, systems (power, fire and security, telecommunications and others) are designed, installed and commissioned independently and vary widely in their complexity. All could benefit from powerful BMS software to bring them together, break down silos, and make it easier for operatives to control and monitor a building’s features through a simple interface.
However, survey results from ECA, CIBSE and SELECT show that progress may be hindered by a lack of pre-existing infrastructure, high cost, and low expertise. Four in 10 clients said they were “not familiar” with the term the “Internet of Things”, which has become widely used in the industry in recent years.
In terms of the main barriers to installing connected technology in buildings, clients identified the cost of installing it (82%) as the main one, with lack of clear advice/knowledge (55%) and cyber security (49%) also considered major factors.
Almost four in 10 clients (39%) said they didn’t take any steps to protect smart installations against cyber threats.
eRAMS was developed as a response to industry demand by ECA
In the realm of the back office, software and apps are already revolutionising ways of working. For many contractors, preparing appropriate risk assessments and method statements can be challenging and time-consuming, even though these are vital to successful contracting.
Applications such as eRAMS (electronic risk assessment and method statement) allow contractors and maintenance teams to create, amend, store and print activity-based risk assessments, plus method statements and construction phase plans (CPPs). eRAMS was developed as a response to industry demand by ECA – and it’s already proved to be helpful far beyond electrical or even building services contracting.
Apps on smartphones and tablets are bringing new dimensions to design and installation through the use of virtual reality (VR). Users can visualise 2D drawings in 3D, and even walk around rooms in a building and rearrange elements in virtual space.
Mixed reality (MR), which blends the real world with virtual images and holograms, is also something which may become more common as part of the building and installing process. This approach helps give greater insight into the construction of an existing building and the installations within it, in real-time.
This will likely evolve to provide more details such as product and planning information, which will be useful during the design stage and during the building’s entire lifecycle.
Don’t overlook security
The risk of hacking and its impact on unsecured networks is one of the biggest obstacles on the path to digitalisation. This challenge in particular needs to be overcome if we are to prevent contractors and clients from missing out on the potential benefits of software, and to make sure they are not letting their devices become their weak point.
Within commercial buildings, security installers need to collaborate with their client’s own network managers, who typically oversee protection against cyber threats. This will demonstrate they can help put the necessary processes in place to secure any new installations or help isolate the network so the security systems can’t be compromised.
Given that a connected building can potentially provide numerous gateways for cyber criminals, conversations with the people who lead on cyber security can be useful in helping them understand which elements of the network need to be protected, and where installers can provide additional support if required.
Demand for software-enabled solutions will only increase, and those contractors that are ready to provide clients with the right advice, systems and support could be in a position to capitalise on these opportunities – and build long-lasting relationships with clients seeking smarter homes, offices or buildings. There will be a greater demand for systems that incorporate smart technology, as well as the services of the people who install them.
The Internet of Things, 3D printing, big data, the cloud, VR and artificial intelligence will have a big influence – and apps will be the crucial link that connects it all to the end-user. If carefully considered, the benefits of software applications in our industry – improved job safety, improved accountability, better data capture, time and cost savings, breaking down silos – could far outweigh the risks.
To hear more about BIM and the myths surrounding it, check out the ECA Podcast at www.eca.co.uk/eca-podcasts