From BIM to prefabrication to drones to big data, areas in which technology either is delivering or has the potential to deliver benefits in design and construction are well acknowledged.
In a number of areas, however, practical adoption on the ground appears to be lacking. In a recent survey conducted by cloud-based payment claim management software provider Progressclaim.com, just 37 per cent felt the industry was an adopter of new technology whilst 78 and 77 per cent felt their own organisation was either not advanced or only slightly advanced in terms of drones and 3D printing respectively.
This is despite nine in 10 agreeing that there was value in staying up to date with technology and 84 per cent indicating that working in an innovative organisation was important to them from a personal perspective.
According to Progressclaim.com chief executive officer Lincoln Easton, such a discord is being driven by a number of forces.
First, he says the fragmented nature of the industry sees a large number of smaller players come together to work on larger projects but then go their own way thereon after. Only a small portion of these enterprises (who operate on tight margins) grow into larger enterprises who remain in business through multiple economic cycles and who have the capacity from a financial perspective to invest in innovation.
Clients and developers, meanwhile, are generally unwilling to pay premiums on current projects in order to facilitate efforts with regard to innovation for which the benefits will be felt not so much on that individual project but more so in respect of future developments.
Second, Easton said there is scepticism about the demonstrable benefits which technology delivers in practice. Whilst recognising that some of the more revolutionary types of technology such as big data are all well and good, he says many contractors see a number of these benefits as addressing peripheral issues which are not central to their core focus of getting the job done.
Finally, the traditionally adversarial approach toward contracting is creating mistrust between parties and inhibiting collaborative effort and initiative, he said.
“It’s a boom and bust industry with thin margins,” Easton said, referring to the financial capacity issue. “Sadly, many industry participants simply don’t survive the cyclical downturns, so ultimately there is that lack of budget (to invest).”
Easton’s comments come amid broader concerns on the part of a number of commentators about the sector investing too little in innovation and being reluctant to embrace change. Currently, the sector spends less than 0.7 per cent of its gross value added (aggregate outputs less aggregate inputs) and around 0.3 per cent of its overall turnover on research and development activities – well below equivalent proportions in other sectors such as mining, manufacturing, transport and warehousing and wholesale trade. Renowned construction industry advisor David Chandler says this figure should be at least one percent of turnover and that this needed to be ‘strategy driven’ R&D.
Professor Vernon Ireland, director of Project Management at the University of Adelaide and former president of the Sydney division of Engineers Australia, meanwhile, noted there is an attitude of complacency which he says has been allowed to spread throughout the industry.
Going forward, Easton said a challenge for technology providers will be to improve the ways in which they demonstrate the return on investment with technology adoption in a way which is meaningful to builders on the ground. This can be challenging he said, as benefits associated with labour savings, avoidance of litigation costs, workplace morale and other ‘soft cost’ savings can be difficult to quantify and define.
In addition, he says cloud based technology is a game changer as it enables different forms of niche types of technology to ‘talk’ to one another and work across common databases – a traditional limitation which he says has been associated with traditional forms of on-premise technology that operated on a stand-alone basis.
This, Easton says, will enable systems to grow in scale with building contractors. A construction professional who has come out of a Tier 1 builder and sets up on their own, for example, will not have to outlay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on the purchase of a full-service, licensed system but rather could start off with a basic web subscription service and bolt on a and add other useful industry-specific tools whilst they gradually build their technology platform out as their business develops.
Throughout Australia, the value of proactive effort with regard to technology adoption is well recognised within the building sector.
Actual uptake and implementation on the ground, however, has a long way to go.