As a sector which is often resistant to change, the construction industry in Australia is not seen as having a great record with regard to embracing innovation and new ways of working.
Yet from BIM to wearable computing to extra lightweight concrete, technologies are advancing which will allow us to interact with our office or home using smart phones, crowd source funding for new ideas, and build components or even whole buildings using 3D printing.
Furthermore, as illustrated on BRW’s recent list of Australia’s 50 most innovative companies, a number of players in the sector are doing exciting things. Mirvac, for example, ranked third on the list for its involvement in a partnership with CSR to develop a system of prefabricated wall panels and floor cassettes which deliver improved thermal, acoustic and structural capacity as well as reducing construction timeframes (through prefabrication) and improving safety.
In a similar vein, Laing O’Rourke developed what is said to be the world’s first fully re-deployable solar farm consisting of large offsite manufactured modules. Geotechnical Engineering, meanwhile, overhauled an inefficient and unreliable paper-based attendance reporting system with a newly created site diary app for the iPad by which supervisors and leading hands are able to easily record time and attendance of staff and which also contain built in features including description of the day’s works, site instructions issued by the client, the weather, delay and plant use.
So where are we going next? Martin Loosemore, a professor of construction management at the University of New South Wales, believes two significant areas which the industry has not yet tapped revolve around big data and analytics and gaming technology.
Big data and analytics are being used in sectors such as retail, where companies like Woolworths are monitoring how customers move around the store, where people’s eyes move and how they walk. These companies are charging suppliers premium rates for placement of the product in what are considered to be ‘hot’ locations. Likewise, Loosemore said, if the building sector could collect data on the performance of projects such as where people move, what happens to materials and where and how waste is being generated, we could understand what is impacting the performance of the industry in delivering significant dollar value projects and make adjustments to improve the way we work.
“When the medical profession discovered DNA, that provided them with a massive amount of new data which they could then analyse and untangle to develop new medicines and treatments,” he said.
“The same thing could happen to construction. If we could collect the data about the performance of construction projects and what happens on a project, we could disentangle the DNA if you like of the construction industry. That could help us start making major inroads to understanding what is actually influencing the performance of the industry in far more informed ways.
“No one is doing that at the present moment, and I think that is really an untapped area.”
In terms of gaming technology, Loosemore feels there is potential to allow not only building users but construction contractors to ‘play’ with the building using virtual reality and simulate the construction process using different configurations of technologies, planning and building techniques. This goes beyond modelling using BIM; it allows people to ‘walk’ around sites in virtual reality and change site layout configurations, material flows and labour supply. In the design phase, clients could ‘see,’ ‘use’ and ‘walk around’ the building in VR and feel how the experience varies if, for example, walls are shifted. From a building standpoint, construction managers could use the technology to feel and see in VR how travel times or ability to move materials around the site would be impacted if, for example, storage sheds were relocated or access points moved.
While much of this is far-sighted, others point to nearer-term priorities. In the housing sector, for example, Mirvac National operations manager David Haller says it is imperative that innovation focus around the customer and the sort of change which directly adds value to building owners and occupants. Toward this end, while BIM, prefab and a lot of the technology areas are important, it is the actual materials which go into houses that deliver the most immediate impact upon home owners.
In that context, Haller says he would like to see some of the things associated environmentally friendly living such as glazing components, external cladding components, solar hot water an PV solar cells become standard inclusions rather than extras.
“Those products in this industry are starting to become more talked about but we do need to have a combined or a collaborative effort from an industry point of view to have these products included in homes as a standard and kind of an opt out rather than an opt-in arrangement,” he said.
Haller says a challenge for companies like Mirvac revolves around being at the forefront of change rather than following trends and to always be understanding customers and identifying what is most suitable for them.
How can innovation be fostered? At a company level, Loosemore says it is important to work toward a culture in which ideas are embraced and people feel comfortable in collaborating and sharing information – not just within the organisation itself but also including customers and the supply chain. Barriers to better ways of working, he says, revolve around knowledge often being disbursed and held by different individuals, who may be reluctant to share this information if they do not feel it's the right environment to share.
Around the world, Loosemore says there are numerous examples of initiatives which encourage collaboration and creativity. Arup, for instance, has a virtual staff room where people can share ideas online. The company has also specifically nominated people from around its business to look at how things are being done differently around the world which the company could apply in its own practice.
Companies like IBM and Google allow workers to spend 10 per cent of their working hours on projects of their own choosing, which may potentially receive support and get developed in house as new areas of business. Google also allows people the flexibility to invent their own job descriptions. Outfits like Disney and Apple adopt flatter organisational structures – a contrast to the often hierarchical nature of building sector companies.
Office layout and design helps, too. Companies like Lend Lease and the Commonwealth Bank have crafted physical environments within their offices which are intended to encourage creativity.
Finally, hiring people who are responsive to change and training workers to embrace new ideas and ways of working are also crucial.
At an industry level, Loosemore says, the key involves breaking down barriers in terms of things like different groups each representing their own members’ interests, contracts that shift risk according to the lowest common denominator, procurement processes that define procurement into different phases, a fragmented training system which locks individuals into particular skill sets and a lack of trust created by practices such as bid shopping.
Clients too, have a role to play. Loosemore says more client leadership is needed in terms of looking at innovative building methods rather than simply accepting the lowest possible price.
Haller says innovation within companies comes from a deliberate approach which puts customers at the front of the pack and involves a clear system where innovative ideas are captured, assessed for suitability and tested in a controlled environment. In the case of Mirvac, a program called hatch saw 45 people hand-picked to undergo a six- to nine-month training process and become ‘champions’ for driving and ensuring that innovation was captured and controlled, with each of the individuals being assigned to different areas or function of the business in which they were to focus on driving change.
At a broader level, Haller feels the competitive nature of the building environment is a barrier to the collaboration needed to drive broader areas of change. A failure to address industry-wide trade shortages, he says, is partly an upshot of this.
The potential for the construction sector to innovate and become more productive, efficient and effective cannot be understated.
If the sector is to reach its full potential, however, barriers to change need to be dealt with and addressed.