The Australian construction industry is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to digital innovation – a critical ingredient in meeting the demands of our rapidly growing population.

With immense building and infrastructure pipelines in our cities, we must, as a nation and an industry, embrace digital innovation and artificial intelligence in order to unlock greater efficiencies, improved productivity and accuracies to future-proof our cities, particularly as we face scarcity in labour resources.

Infrastructure planning and delivery requires a very specific skillset, not one that is easily transferable from the building sector. It should be home grown through our university system and imported from overseas through skilled migrants as our general population and transportation requirements are growing so quickly that we can’t keep up.

Simply, there’s more work than there are skilled workers. In my strong opinion this is due to a lack of forward thinking and action over the last 15 years, and as we now play catch-up, we are struggling to keep up with the demand.

In Victoria and NSW, Tier 1 and Tier 2 contractors have been transferring resources from other states, but it still has not been enough. Huge project delays, such as the Sydney Light Rail, are costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

The federal budget allocated approximately $10 billion per year for ongoing infrastructure expenditure in the next four years – but the limited resources at all levels means that, unless we build a skilled workforce now, this funding cannot be effectively used. But do we have the time this will take…

So what’s the solution?

There’s been some fear around the prospect of artificial intelligence for some time – will it cost people their jobs and livelihoods? Will we completely replace workers with robots? How effective really is it? Is it a fad?

In actual fact, AI is the answer we’re looking for.

AI is vital in order to keep up with the rest of the world in project scheduling and management, early identification of issues and predictive analysis to provide mitigation options to bring projects back on track. AI can reduce monotonous and time-consuming tasks, provide faster measurement directly from Revit, Autocad or Bricscad files and undertake sophisticated benchmarking to offer more accurate total end cost (providing sufficient time spliced data is mined).

Early detection of project timeline issues can provide options/scenarios to minimises delays and cost blowouts.

As far as robotics are concerned manufacturing costs are being reduced by several construction companies in Silicon Valley, who are looking into outsourcing parts of the process to off-site factories, where autonomous robots can piece together components of a building before they are assembled by humans on-site.

A successful example is German company Software AG, it uses robotic process automation (RPA) to take over mundane, repetitive, high-volume tasks such as merging data and updating case management systems. Sweden’s Volvo Construction Equipment uses AI with their Compact Assist program, which automatically maps the passes that compactors make and records temperature maps, helping machine operators carry out complex tasks which they otherwise would not be able to complete. These examples show that AI can be used for both difficult and simple tasks, maximising efficiency and productivity while cutting out the time wasting but necessary work for human employees.

In Australia Apollo kitchens, have a fully robotised factory at their Smithfield facility. The robots are utilised for cutting, moving, processing and packaging (with all waste material being incinerated on site). This factory provides increased productivity, higher degree of accuracy and safer factory conditions all of which translates into a more efficient on-site assembly, better programming ability for the head contractor, more efficient use of hoisting and less defects.

Elsewhere, AI is used to mitigate OH&S concerns – Swinerton Builders in California uses the AI program Project IQ to monitor subcontractor performance and enhance on-site construction safety. As OH&S is a major issue facing the Australian construction industry, a similar system could be implemented to manage risk and inform future OH&S training and education.

At WT, we have been investing heavily in digital technology and innovation over the last five years. We developed our own software which automates simple tasks, allowing for greater efficiency and accuracy when assessing builders’ monthly progress claims, and have recently formed a Global Partnership Alliance to implement world-leading AI technology Octant AI – a machine learning tool that gathers and analyses project performance data to produce improved insights. 

The next step, working in partnership with Australian project technology firm Endeavour Programme and global engineering, management and development firm Mott MacDonald, will introduce this data-driven approach to more effectively manage cost and program on projects of any kind, globally – if we are to advance, professional services must be merged with these emerging technologies.

Since establishing our business into an agile forward-thinking corporation, we have significantly strengthened our ability to adopt and develop digital innovation. We continue to research advanced technologies and the deployment of drones, robotics and AI in our service through partnerships with other businesses and our own in-house experts and data scientists who work closely with an Innovation Excellence Committee to constantly look at implementing even more forward-thinking concepts.

Our clients want certainty, adaptability and the best value for money. Our imperative is to be leaders in our field and create a strong culture around innovation. WT has fostered a cultural shift that sees digital innovation not as a threat or something to fear, but as the driver of a brighter future.

I applaud businesses to adopt agile forward thinking and take a step in the right direction to future proof our industry and help build better cities.

Nick Deeks, Managing Director of WT Partnership