‘We’ve reached a tech tipping point’

How is Bechtel, one of the world’s largest construction companies, identifying and harnessing new digital technology? Nick Hertzman finds out from chief innovation officer David Wilson.

A technology explosion has rippled through construction, transforming how the industry approaches and manages projects. While this tech boom has improved industry practices, the surge in innovation has also left many struggling to find ways to adopt new technologies.

David Wilson is chief innovation officer at Bechtel, one of the world’s largest construction companies, who moved into his role two years ago when his employer realised technology was outpacing the industry’s ability to keep up.

The dominant headline for construction over the last two years has been the industry’s productivity gap, and a lack of tech adoption is often blamed.

Wilson believes the industry is at a turning point: “We’re seeing an influx in enthusiasm and passion around technology and innovation in the construction industry,” he says. “In the future, we will reflect upon this moment as the tipping point; the moment when technology enabled the unleashing of construction productivity. It is similar to the early internet days, because of the potential of the technology and the growing interest.”

His optimism, however, comes with caution: “It’s also a very fragile time. It would be very easy for the industry to revert to the old, comfortable ways if innovative solutions don’t work or scale immediately.”

Bechtel’s approach to construction tech 

The chief innovation officer says Bechtel’s approach to marrying new technology with construction hasn’t been without hiccups.

“Earlier in my career, the development of a new solution on a ‘must-succeed’ project ultimately led us to under-deliver by going over budget and over schedule,” Wilson says. The lesson, he says, is that now, “no technology gets rolled out all at once; it is rigorously tested on pilot projects.”

Bechtel has three ‘streams’ which it uses to source new ideas:

  1. Organic. Crowdsourcing ideas internally.
  2. Emerging Tech. Keeping an eye on trending tech in the wider industry.
  3. Safety, quality, and schedule. Applying design principles to examine how project teams struggle with safety, quality, and schedule issues.

The company then puts all new tech ideas through a six-step framework to determine whether they should be adopted:

  • Ideate. Crowdsource new solutions and approaches.
  • Evaluate. Research a new technology or concept to see if it has potential to improve quality, cost, safety, or schedule on a project.
  • Prototype. If the tech seems it can offer value, Bechtel will advance the idea and test a prototype.
  • Pilot. Once the idea is proven to work and has potential to offer value, it is rolled out on a project and used in parallel with old processes. Successes and failures are monitored closely to determine if the new idea adds value.
  • Implement. If the pilot succeeds, the idea is slowly rolled out to other projects where it will continue to be monitored and evaluated.
  • Deliver. From these new concepts and ideas, Bechtel’s goal is to deliver 30% improvement in schedule and 20% reduction in costs.

Over the past two years, Bechtel has taken more than 2,500 new ideas through the six-step framework, which Wilson says has resulted in approximately 100 instances of matured innovation being deployed across their projects.

Examples of where technology has overhauled productivity include using drones with 4D BIM to get an idea of how planned progress on a project matched up with actual progress.

On another project, Bechtel needed to perform frequent audits and quality checks within confined spaces which presented a serious safety hazard, so instead lowered a 360-degree camera into each space and live-streamed the video to a tablet.

“This simple technological hack has not only significantly sped up productivity, it’s improved project safety,” says Wilson.

He believes one key principle when adopting new technology is only trying out one new idea on each project.

“You can make one project an AR pilot, one a drone pilot, and one a laser scanning pilot; what matters most is carefully detailing what worked and what didn’t,” Wilson explains. “Once you have the results, you can compound technologies on the next job to see how they work together to augment productivity even further.”

He stresses the need to take small steps throughout the process: “Construction tech can be big and distracting. The most important thing is to have the discipline to break it down into small and deliverable chunks to test, learn, and iterate.” 

Emerging technology 

Wilson is cautious about how quickly artificial intelligence and robotics will be adopted by the industry.

“AI and the pending robotic apocalypse are very exaggerated at the moment,” he says. “The data-centric model that needs to be developed for AI to be useful is still years away. While it may enable the automation of repetitive tasks on complex heavy-industrial projects, I certainly don’t see a robotic army replacing humans anytime soon.”

Instead, Wilson argues: “Construction needs to focus on building out the foundation that will support new tech, and this will be a slower process. That’s why over the next three to five years, the fastest growing sector of construction technology will be data integration.

“The key to unlocking the power of hardware is having the analytics in place to identify, organise, and understand objects on the construction site. Everything coming in the future is predicated on successfully accomplishing this task. Once this is done, then you can start looking 10 years down the road at how AI will take these standardised objects and use them for predictive analytics and scheduling.”

Through his role heading up innovation at Bechtel, Wilson has come to appreciate the importance of site teams and how new tech benefits them.

“We now focus on the builders, our colleagues doing work on site, as the end consumer of technology, and look at how it affects their experience and their job,” he says. “The goal is to make sure we are using technology innovation to get the right resources, to the right person, at the right place, at the right time.

“Eventually, we’ll be able to use predictive analytics to make that process even more efficient. Everyone will have exactly what they need at the workface to work safer, better, faster and leaner.”

Nick Hertzman is a content strategist at construction software company Unearth Technologies

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