The construction industry has a reputation for being slow to adopt innovative technology. Many contractors believe this is about to change.
June 20, 2017 by Jacob Stoller
Of all the wonders of technology, perhaps the most stunning is its ability to transform entire industries. The retail sector will never be the same since the advent of e-commerce. Robotics and autonomous machines are transforming our factories, forever changing what it means to be a factory worker. “Shared economy” networks are reinventing the taxicab and hospitality industries.
Few would cite a bricks and mortar industry like construction in this context, but according to some of the top contractors in Canada, this is about to change. “I’ve been doing IT for 25 years, and the pace and rate of change today is faster than anything that I’ve ever seen,” says Mark Bryant, chief information officer, at Edmonton-based PCL Construction.
The transformation isn’t about the arrival of a single “killer app” – what we’re seeing is a tipping point where the assimilation of a number of technologies is beginning to snowball.
“We think we’re at an inflection point,” says Mathew Kattapuram, senior vice-president, strategic business development for Toronto-based Aecon Group Inc. “Because you’ve got a convergence of artificial intelligence, robotics, cloud computing, the internet of things, BIM, and 3D printing. The additive effect is amplifying the innovations tremendously. So we haven’t seen anything yet.”
The industry has plenty of areas to work on. To illustrate, Kattapuram cites a study by the New York-based Boston Consulting Group. Productivity in the U.S. economy, according to the study, has grown by 153 per cent since 1964, but during the same period, it has declined 19 per cent in the Engineering, Construction, and Services (ECS) sector.
“Labour efficiency has lagged in construction, and Kiewit is turning that curve northward,” says Chris Dill, vice-president of technology at Omaha, Neb.-based Kiewit Corporation “So we’re looking at opportunities to get away from this linear relationship that more work equals more people.”
Projects, on the other hand, are getting more complex and challenging to manage. “The jobs that large contractors are taking on are very large from a dollar amount value perspective, and very complex in terms of the scope and technical engineering required to execute [them],” says Dill. “So with that comes the need to have technology tools that help you deal with that complexity.”
The rise of virtual construction
Amidst all the technologies transforming the industry, Building Information Systems (BIM) has become the focal point. BIM itself is no longer new, but many leading Canadian firms are getting to the point where the use of BIM is mainstream.
“Last year was the year that BIM was really adopted in the company,” says Ivanka Iordanova, BIM-VDC director for Montreal-based Pomerleau Inc., who was hired by the firm in 2011 to set up its BIM team. “Today, it’s no longer considered an innovation here. This is a strange feeling, but a real victory for our team. BIM is seen as already here.”
“In North America, we’re just scratching the surface with BIM,” says Dill. “Europe is ahead of us in that game. But it’s coming, and its going to transform how we plan and build our work. I think you’ll see the model becoming the centre of everything in terms of project management, procurement, material management and more. Everything will be managed out of a model in the not too distant future.”
And if there’s any doubt, the British government has mandated the use of BIM in tenders for public buildings. “I think you’ll see other governments follow quickly,” says Bryant.
Soon, Bryant predicts, people won’t even talk about virtual construction. “I think the word ‘virtual’ will drop in the next 18-months. These tools will become mainstream.”
Transforming the industry
One of the most powerful aspects of digital modeling is that it allows contractors to employ prototyping – something the automotive and aerospace industries have used for decades.
“What these technologies do is reduce any impacts of conceptual errors, due to the ability to simulate the construction process,” says Robert Fernandez, vice-president, marketing and business development at Calgary-based Stuart Olson Construction Ltd. “While you can do that using conventional methods such as drawings, etc., the process is usually quite lengthy. When you do it in a virtual environment, you can accelerate the process.”
This virtual environment opens the door to next-generation construction technologies such as modularization, which has already seen wide adoption in Europe. “We built the New Central Library in Calgary using a BIM-based design,” says Fernandez. “This allowed us to put a whole mechanical floor on top of the building, basically in prefab modules, which couldn’t have otherwise worked using traditional design methodology. In this case, we had folks on the job site, including sub trades, connect the dots between digital and real construction.”
In another example, PCL used virtual construction to improve the construction process at the Humber River Hospital project in Toronto, where the contractor constructed 300 prefabricated washrooms offsite, and then installed them in the building. Bryant refers to this as “agile development,” which involves ironing out the bugs in a project in a virtual test environment to ensure discrepancies never make it to the job site.
“You’re putting it all together in a controlled facility instead of at the construction phase,” says Bryant. “This is a lot easier than installing multiple washrooms on multiple floors of a facility, and then having your labour needing to go back and forth between floors to make changes. This in essence improves efficiency on-site. We’re seeing more of that happening.”
At Pomerleau, BIM modeling is being used as an enabler for Lean construction, an approach that applies advanced manufacturing techniques to minimize waste and maximize value for the client.
Another game changer is the ability to innovate – not just over the construction horizon but for the entire lifecycle of the project. “We’re engaged in public-private partnerships where we’re involved in design, construction, maintenance, and operations,” says Kattapuram, “so our clients are looking for the lowest net present value over a 30-year horizon, rather than just a construction horizon.”
The models aren’t necessarily virtual. Using 3D printing, the firm recently created a physical model of a compressor station to help maintenance people understand some of the challenges they would be facing.
In general, digital models are extraordinary communication enablers. Superintendents, building owners, workers, and sub trades can easily go back and forth between model and actual, sorting out the details with the assurance that everybody is on the same page.
Changing the culture
While the successes of the leaders are impressive, many firms have yet to begin the journey, and according to John Bockstael, president and chief executive officer, Bockstael Construction in Winnipeg, and chair of Canadian Construction Innovations, many have still to be convinced that the effort is worthwhile.
“We hear about companies being ‘BIM lonely’,” says Bockstael. “Maybe it’s a subcontractor who’s decided to start doing their work by BIM, but the architects and engineers they work for aren’t doing it. So they’re trying to work through it on their own.”
The investment is significant – colleges and universities aren’t providing the necessary training, so companies have to do that in-house, funding it off their own payroll, and Bockstael has heard from many firms that are reluctant to make that investment.
“This is where owners come into play,” says Bockstael. “A buyer of construction has to come along and say, ‘I want this, because I see the benefits of information modeling in terms of care and maintenance of my building in the future.’”
There’s a long way to go, however. “We still deal with specifications that want us to submit our operation and maintenance manuals in hard copy,” says Bockstael.
When companies do make that digital leap, they need to build a culture to support it, and this takes time. According to Kattapuram, the process is similar to building a safety culture. “You have to build the culture from bottom up… Top down never works,” he says. “We’ve seen that before.”
Often, seeing is believing, and given the visual nature of BIM, Iordanova notes, construction people tend to get addicted. “Immediately after two of our job sites adopted BIM, I got these folks to talk to the other project managers and superintendents so they could show the benefits to their colleagues,” says Iordanova. “That’s how it works.”
Another challenge is that people unfamiliar with technology often find it difficult to describe their processes so they can be digitized. “Paper-based systems are often tied to tribal knowledge, and often people don’t define their scope very well,” says Charles Cooper, owner of Huntsville, Ont.-based Muskoka Hydrovac. “So it’s often hard to take manual processes and convert them to IT.”
The answer, says Cooper, is to have frequent back and forth conversations between IT and the field. According to Yuri Bartzis, BIM / virtual construction manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based Maple Reinders Constructors Ltd., this conversation often takes place across the generation gap, between experienced workers who are close to retirement, and the younger more digitally savvy millenials, who are taking their place.
“We’ve got some great experienced guys that are towards the tail end of their careers, and the firm really wanted to bring in young talent that could learn from them, and also bring in that technology aspect,” says Bartzis. “So we’ve been showing our experienced guys what the technology can do, and they’re coming back with some great ideas on where to take it. For example, on our Mid Halton Wastewater Treatment Plant project in Oakville, we showed our experienced guys how technology can be useful for prefabrication, and they’re coming back with some great ways to implement the technologies to make it useful on the construction site.”
Perhaps this demographic shift will be the most important driver for moving construction into the digital age. According to BuildForce Canada, as many as 248,000 skilled construction workers are retiring en masse over the next decade. If these experienced workers are replaced by millenials, who can’t even imagine a world without the internet, it’s anybody’s guess how fast the digital construction revolution will develop.
Jacob Stoller is a principal of Toronto-based consultancy StollerStrategies. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.