Despite an explosion of technology that could drive increased accuracy, efficiency, and profits, Australia’s $300 billion building sector continues to lag in adopting new technology tools.
According to ABS data, only a third of construction businesses are 'innovation-active.' However, increasing market competition has many business leaders beginning to recognize the value of unlocking project data in a systematic way.
Australian firms are not alone, according to Ian Howell, CEO at software firm Newforma.
“Resistance to being innovative in terms of adopting technology is certainly a global trend for architecture and engineering,” he said.
That resistance to embracing technology and innovation comes with huge costs.
“When you look at the industry scorecard from the US, 75 per cent of projects underperform. More than 70 per cent of projects run late. Sixty-nine per cent run not only over budget, but more than 10 per cent over budget. In terms of waste, in terms of work that’s done incorrectly and having to be reworked, and materials being wasted, it’s estimated at $120 billion annually,” Howell said.
According to the Boston Consulting Group, more widespread adoption of technology would yield enormous gains. Full-scale digitization, defined as “data-driven planning, surveillance and maintenance, and other innovations,” would create cost savings within 10 years of 13 to 21 per cent in the design, engineering and construction phases of nonresidential construction.
Building information modeling, Howell said, is a bright spot for Australian AEC firms.
“Australia is right up there with BIM, where you essentially preconstruct, and preassemble a building in the computer model,” he noted.
AEC firms have recognised the value of the technology, which allows the team to coordinate different disciplines to ensure projects will be safe and well-built before construction even begins.
Despite strong adoption of BIM, Howell sees Australian AEC firms as less willing to experiment than US firms.
“I don’t see the experimentation quite the same, because here in the US we have general contractors who are experimenting, for example, with drone technology. They’re laying out the centre lines of walls on concrete slabs using drones, using GPS technologies,” he said.
“I think maybe the difference in America is that funds are being spent to experiment as a matter of learning, and in Australia, firms are waiting to see that experimentation has delivered some proven results before they are perhaps willing to adopt.”
However, Howell said, more firms are adopting proven technology, such as lean methodology to try and optimise work processes and cut down on wasted work, costs and materials.
A strong factor pushing firms to adopt new tools is the massive increase in information in the last two decades. That information must be managed and shared among all players in the project team, requiring improved technology.
There’s been a huge amount of trouble managing that information, Howell said, because of the multiple parties involved in projects, such as the architect, the engineers, the contractor, and the specialty subcontractors. They all use different platforms and create different documents and data.
Some firms attempt to manage information by dividing it up into silos.
"They try and organise information into separate silos, because they’re trying to break it down into bite-sized pieces,” Howell said.
That worsens the problem, because it cuts off access to some information. The solution, he said, is software that indexes information from all parties and makes it searchable.
Technology can also enhance the working relationship of all parties by improving transparency. Howell calls it the “trust-verify” model.
“Everyone on the team is a trusted member of the team. Everyone’s doing the right thing to try and get the job done on time and on budget,” he said.
The software enables everyone to see and track what’s happening with an audit trail, which allows each member of the team to track what was sent to whom, at what time, and even when it was seen by the recipient.