Australia’s architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector is at a crossroads. Any company that wants to be a leading player should be investing aggressively in new and even cutting-edge technology, while also recruiting the young professionals who will manage that technology.

Some firms are doing that, but as a whole, the sector remains mired in dated approaches to the built environment.

A key roadblock to the adoption of needed technology is the ownership and upper management of AEC firms, according to Ian Howell, CEO of software firm Newforma. While young professionals want to get to work and put technologies such as virtual reality and drones into practice, the leadership of many firms holds them back.

“These are two completely different cultures, and the old hands don’t have the trust in some of this new technology,” Howell said. “The young professionals are busting at the seams to do this stuff. They are the youth who grew up with gaming stations. They are all over virtual reality. They have lived in virtual worlds for their entire young adult life.”

In addition, young professionals are trying to convince owners and managers of the incredible value that technology can offer.

“It’s the younger generation who are trying, I believe, to prove to the existing leaders of industry, the leaders of their company, the owners and managers, just how valuable this stuff can be,” Howell said.

According to consulting firm McKinsey & Co., the construction sector lags behind other sectors in funding research and development. While aerospace invests 4.5 per cent of revenue into research and development, and the automotive industry invests 3.5 per cent, construction-related research-and-development investment runs less than one per cent of revenue.

Not all companies are slow to adopt new technology, Howell said.

“There are companies that are exceptions, where they have an R&D budget, they do apply technologies on each of their jobs, such as the American firm JE Dunn with virtual reality, as an example,” he noted.

In addition, he pointed out, there are companies who make a point of trying out a new technology on every project, where possible.

Drones are one of those new technologies, Howell said.

Before the advent of drone technology, a crane might be a legitimate, if expensive and time-consuming, option for inspections on higher building levels. But now, Howell noted, “the young bucks will say ‘I can fly my drone up there and show you.’”

Virtual reality is another cutting-edge technology that is transforming AEC.

“People believe that virtual reality is probably the most impactful technology in this particular industry,” Howell said.

JE Dunn, as mentioned, has started experimenting with virtual reality technology, and they report savings of two to three times over their investment in the technology, Howell said. In the current marketplace, he noted, firms that want to advance need to get used to experimenting with new technology.

“You’ve got to get in there, you’ve got to get your feet wet, try and fail, and figure out how the technology might help,” he noted.

Virtual reality technology offers unique benefits for both firms and customers. A firm in Singapore provides virtual reality walkthroughs for their customers.

“What they literally do is invite them in, put the goggles on, and say, ‘Let me walk you through your building,’” Howell noted.

It’s a powerful use of technology that provides a much more realistic experience of the space than drawings and models, as 2D sketches and even 3D models can fail to give a true sense of a space.

With virtual reality technology, the space is made much more real in the client experience.

“You can stand inside of any space in the building, and literally be immersed in the room. And you can walk through the door, and you can burst down into the corridor or the lobby. And you can go through the front doors and be standing on the big plaza at the front of the building,” Howell added.

For firms, virtual reality is equally powerful. Speaking of the firm in Singapore, Howell noted, “they’ve built competitive advantage by adopting technology, and getting it to the point where it’s informing their clients.”

For the design team, virtual reality highlights clashes like no other tool. Ceiling spaces, for example, may be designed with excruciating detail, but when problems slip through, they must be fixed on the job site, a time-consuming and more expensive proposition.

“If you imagine the ceiling space between what you see as light fittings and acoustic tiles, and the underside of the slab above, it is mayhem in that ceiling plenum space,” Howell said. “With the plumbing that gives you the hot water, all of the electrical, all of the data cabling. It’s where your routers fit. It’s where your white-noise system is. It’s where your structural beams are. It’s where your fire retardant is. It’s where your sprinkler system is for your fireproofing and alarm system.”

With virtual reality technology, however, Howell noted, more problems can be detected early.

Technology also impacts how the design team approaches work flows and interaction. Lean planning, Howell noted, is still in an “embryonic” stage, but it’s coming along and challenging the status quo.

Lean planning can replace outdated methods such as critical path scheduling and huge Gantt charts with work schedules and milestones, and team members standing around shuffling their Post-It notes here and there on the wall.

In contrast, lean planning tools work on “push and pull” planning.

“It’s all forward looking. It’s all making commitments to other trades on the job, to other consultants on the design team, around what they’re going to get, and when they’re going to get it, and therefore when they can take their next action on the information,” Howell said.

In addition, the workflows can now be managed digitally, rather than on a physical wall in the job trailer. Such features can now be stored on an iPad and brought directly to a job site, streamlining processes immensely.

Firms that continue to lag in adopting technology will struggle to attract and retain the talent they need to compete, Howell said.

“If you get these young professionals who are willing to experiment and show senior management what’s possible, and you don’t provide the environment or infrastructure for them to do it, they’ll go to some other employer who will,” he noted.