A leading national quantity surveyor recently published a report that proposed a crane index as a measure of industry confidence in the face of the current construction rebound.

It was proposed that this might be an international innovation. Cranes may provide some indicators for governments, the industry and the public about how the economy is faring. One assumes the public would believe that many cranes on the horizon are a good thing and that they indicate times are good. But is that the real story?

Productivity is a key theme in construction conversations these days. In my view, a crane index for confidence is not what’s needed as it fails to tackle productivity. A crane index to measure utilisation makes more sense. Quantity surveyors are a primary gateway in construction transactions. They advise clients on value for money, they assess contractor costs and certify progress payments. But quantity surveyors could do more to help drive industry change and tackle its insidious waste.

If you look at crane utilisation from a different perspective, one would notice that they only seem to work about 60 per cent of the available time (not counting RDOs, weekends and holidays), and I doubt if they ever lift loads near to their capacity more than 25 per cent of the time. Cranes of the type observed for the confidence crane index require an investment of at least $2 million, probably that much again to erect, climb and dismantle, not accounting for the cost of operators, attendants and maintenance. They are a big part of construction infrastructure and they often define onsite work practices.

Over the last 20 years, the lifting capacity of cranes has increased substantially. Cranes with 50-ton capacity are not unusual [1]. If you talk to the crane manufacturers and ask what will cranes of the future be like, they will talk of crane physics and robotics improving lifting capacity, quieter electric cranes increasingly being used in cities to allow 24/7 utilisation, remote 24/7 fleet monitoring and maintenance planning, on-board 3D simulation for driver training and real time utilisation and safety diagnostics.

If you ask the crane makers what contractors are asking for they say “speed of hook back to the street and length of rope to enable the construction of even higher buildings.” Some cranes now have over 250 metres of rope to lift before anything goes on the hook. Very special ropes from Japan are required for these lengths and lifts. But it is pleasing that the rope drums are still able to be machined in Australia, for now. Unfortunately the cranes now dotting our Australian city skylines are mostly assembled from overseas components. But what’s left is at risk of going off-shore as well.

Contributing to the drift off-shore is the paucity of engineering graduates coming out of Australian universities who are qualified in advanced physics, electronics and robotics of the type needed for tomorrow’s cranes and global support systems. The world will look to India and Malaysia for these skills in future.

So what are Australia’s contractors doing with longer and faster ropes? They seem to spend most of their time lifting formwork, reinforcing steel, scaffolding and rubbish. What is clear if you spend time just observing what goes on is that very little pre-fabricated construction is being lifted and that lifting cycle times are very slow. It often takes 20 to 30 minutes to lift mostly temporary stuff. To make matters worse, the number of people needed to lift, unload, stop traffic, check safety, supervise and wait to be unloaded is mind boggling. Just think of the additional on-site infrastructure to support this workforce let alone the expense of all these people which on average cost $75 per hour.

Cranes in construction are being under-utilised

Cranes in construction are being under-utilised

Add to these overheads the fact that when it’s too windy, hot or raining, much of the crane dependent workforce gets sent home and paid.

But none of this quells contractor claims that workers are paid too much. I would put it that a lack of workforce utilisation planning and management accountability is just as responsible for out of control construction costs and falling productivity as any other aspect of construction inefficiency these days. Quantity surveyors are mostly silent on this front and acquiesce to unproductive on-site practices out of ignorance of fear of offending large contractors. They are certainly not present to cast a dissenting view when valueless enterprise bargaining agreements are signed up that eventually flow across the whole industry.

Despite Australian construction’s slow uptake of off-site construction, the pace of global industry change and imports of value added construction components hastens. Australian governments seem asleep at the wheel while the global construction market becomes more industrialised. The status quo locally sustains the continuance of onsite fabrication, assembly inefficiency and waste. It’s hard to get local buy-in to the need for better, faster, cheaper and smarter to define the industry’s future.

Off-site is not just about the off-site fabrication and on-site assembly interface; it is much more. It goes back to clients becoming more interested in “more for less.” State governments should be horrified by the cost ramifications of the construction projects discussed in this article. They should be even more concerned over the cost of this inertia flowing across the industry, driving up the cost of all economic and social infrastructure and housing, most of which is debt funded.

If they were minded to do something about it they would ask some serious questions of their designers, project managers, quantity surveyors and contractors. Perhaps they just don’t get it?

Off-site starts with how projects are conceived, how they are designed and how they are organised for construction. It’s not just about the fabrication and assembly bit. Remember that construction methods and work packaging are in place long before the first worker or contractor turns up. So while the potential of BIM is constantly lauded and there is considerable potential here to help drive construction productivity little in effect benefits the work flows on site. Despite claims that BIM allows projects to be virtually built multiple times during design development it is hard to see that translate during construction. The current industry tender culture works against developing a more seamless construction supply chain. Quantity surveyors are just bystanders in all of this as their outdated trade packaging fails to make way for new smarter elemental construction approaches.

It’s time for quantity surveyors to come up with a pre-construction effectiveness index. It’s time to stop subscribing to the wasteful underutilisation of cranes for a start. No crane should be admitted to a project cost line without a detailed business case which addresses what is the crane for, what will be its average lift and how will lifting be monitored and optimised. They should be pushing back when contractors trot out the same old lazy construction methods. They should be testing and measuring for innovations that drive at least 30 per cent of current onsite fabrication off-site. They should be testing ways to reduce overall construction durations by 50 per cent.

Most importantly, quantity surveyors should be leading the charge to see construction costs lowered across the board by at least 20 per cent. This should be low hanging fruit. When you think about all of this – cranes could be the new bellwether indicator of construction productivity. No more sub-optimal lifting, no-more just hanging around doing nothing, construction should not just be a 35 hours per week process. The standing cost of construction infrastructure is now too high to continue to laugh at the old adage “how many men does it take to change a light bulb or lift a plank?”

A pre-construction efficiency index and flow on productivity measures outlined here should be of interest to universities and trade colleges. Unpacking this information will stimulate thinking about what the next cohort of constructors should be taught and what the industry’s priorities should be for rebuilding the industry’s management capabilities. A pre-construction efficiency index may stimulate more accountability amongst politicians who are committing new projects and accepting avoidable cost. It may even add a dimension to the vexed issue of what to do with unions.

Perhaps all of this will wise up a misinformed public who could feel very different about the waste of public money going on across major projects, their cranes and how indirectly this flows on to them.

[1] www.favellefavco.com/main-tower-model-luffing.php