The Australian construction industry has done whatever it takes to deliver projects during the past two years despite huge difficulties.

Ongoing challenges—such as project complexity, resource availability, and data silos—mean that organisations must now decide how to best embrace the technology revolution that is under way in construction and, by doing so, maintain a competitive advantage to succeed in the long term.

Construction margins remain stubbornly low, which makes the local industry a fertile ground for improvement—but it has resisted adopting new technology despite considerable evidence showing significant, attainable benefits. Other industries have proven that companies that are quick to embrace emerging technologies will gain a strong competitive advantage. Construction’s digital future is already here, but remains unevenly distributed.

An Industry Snapshot

Many of the problems faced by Australian construction firms in recent years existed well before the pandemic, however has made it harder to manage. For example, within organisations it can be difficult to manage and use the vast amount of data that’s becoming available. It is challenging to scale best practices across the organisation, as well as to attract and retain the best people and use them to best effect projects. Externally, there are challenges that amplify internal problems such as complex projects, interconnected teams, fragmented value chains, and extensive subcontracting. None of these make projects easier, but the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new technology, which is beginning to change how construction firms operate.

The global economy is becoming increasingly digitised, and there are huge opportunities for construction organisations if they can get on board with new technologies. Digital design and smart construction, underpinned by a motivated and skilled workforce, will help to deliver infrastructure that is low-carbon, sustainable, and resilient.


Everyday Hurdles for Delivery Teams

Transitioning the world to a low-carbon economy is a growing responsibility for construction firms at every level in the supply chain ecosystem. However, firms face challenges on the path to digitisation. For example, procurement processes often restrict early collaboration between clients and their supply chains when they could properly explore options for innovation. Lessons from successful innovation are not captured and applied to future projects, and the commercial viability of innovative products and services can be uncertain.

Construction has traditionally been slow to change and adapt to new ideas and technologies. Too often digital engineering is bought as a commodity on each project rather than implemented during construction and maintenance as a long-term best-practice process, which helps to explain why many construction companies do not invest in innovation.

The Construction Technology Opportunity

Digital technology presents many opportunities to improve how projects are designed and constructed, including data analytics, modular designs, BIM, virtual design and construction (VDC), 3D printing, reality modelling, robotics, and asset performance management. Single or multiple technologies can be leveraged in different combinations to support practical workflows, giving organisations the modular technology, tools, and processes needed to digitise their operations—and a robust framework for a construction digital twin. Digital twins build on existing best practices and organisations that get the basics right will have a head start on the competition.

Construction digital twins start with creating high-quality digital components using the latest design and BIM technology to ensure that designs are complete, consistent, and correct. Secondly, best-practice workflows ensure that data is managed securely and effectively using a common data environment (CDE), which stores and manages content created by the team, and then delivers that content to the right people, in the right format, at the right time, for the task at hand. The third consideration is context. Surveying technology makes it easy to place and review components in their correct context. Photographs taken using a phone or a camera mounted on a drone can be converted quickly into an accurate 3D reality model for use in subsequent workflows, and as a reference point with which  future surveys can be compared. Reality modelling is routinely used to monitor and measure construction works on site.

It is also important to consider the alignment, accountability, and accessibility of data because projects have data in different formats from different sources. Data alignment ensures that information can be taken from different software applications and reuse it. For example, a contractor can take models and data from design firms that are created using different vendors’ BIM tools and create a 4D construction sequence without needing the source software applications. The aligned data could also be viewed easily and quickly in a virtual reality environment to help with construction planning. Data accountability means that teams are aware of who created the information and what it can be used for. Data accessibility ensures that construction teams can get the information they need by using their preferred device—wherever they are.

When teams have the digital components, the workflows, and the context, this forms the basis for a construction digital twin.

Construction Digital Twins: Create-Connect-Consume

At its simplest, a digital twin is a digital representation of a physical asset, process, or system. But it is also a live, evolving set of data that must be continuously synchronised, and it should exploit data-driven workflows to optimise performance. Construction digital twins are being enabled by advances in areas such as reality modelling, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and machine learning. More technology is coming onto the market, and it is getting cheaper.

There can be multiple versions of a digital twin throughout the lifecycle of an infrastructure asset, enabling users at all stages to make better-informed decisions for better outcomes. The foundation of a construction digital twin is inputs like drawings, 3D models, BIM data, GIS data, pre-construction information (such as record information, health and safety hazards, and planning information), and feeds from the field (including IoT data, progress updates, drone data, and inspection data). The inputs support construction workflows such as 4D planning, model-based estimating, and machine automation. The result is a jump in productivity.

A construction digital twin not only helps projects by providing real-time data visibility, ensuring that everyone is always on the same page at the same time, but it also provides 4D planning and 5D estimating so that resources are optimised and risks are reduced, and it provides operational efficiencies and business intelligence so that teams make better decisions faster.

Digital technology is helping contractors win projects with better, sustainable margins, it is enabling them to deliver them more efficiently on site, and it is improving their longer-term viability and profitability.

The Future of Digital Construction is Happening Now

It is important for the construction industry to start exploiting digital technology to do a lot more with a lot less. Construction is starting to shift in the right direction, and organisations are moving from the old ways of doing things to new, better methods. Construction software is enabling project teams to define and implement best practices consistently across every project and through the whole supply chain. Digitisation means that everyone can be on the same page at the same time and make better decisions faster. It means that resources can be optimised, risks can be mitigated, and rework can be avoided. It also means that teams can increasingly spend more time working on value-added tasks.

Construction’s digital future is here, and it is helping firms win projects, deliver them more efficiently, and improve their profitability.

By Paul King, Director, Product Solution Engineering, Bentley Systems