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Change is heading tier ones’ way

Damon Schünmann

Some things are just inherently hard to describe. Take digital construction for example, where even industry experts have slightly different ideas of what it really means.

Even something like BIM – one of the better-known pieces of the digital construction puzzle – can be hard to explain to someone hearing about it for the first time.

Some of the better definitions, which have been kicking around for a few years now, refer to sharing information in a common data environment to produce a ‘digital twin’ of an asset, before any ground-breaking even begins.

So it was interesting to hear yesterday, on day one of its The Year in Infrastructure conference, that Bentley Systems sees this as something of a zeitgeist.

CEO Greg Bentley was certainly enthusiastic: “We will be talking about digital twins every time we meet!” he told delegates.

Later on I spoke to one of the company’s vice-presidents Bob Mankowski, who expanded on this theme: “[What is crucial is] the link between the engineering digital twin and the performance digital twin.”

It’s this area that may have unintended consequences for UK construction.

Here, the traditional main contractor model is coming under increased pressure, both in terms of strangled profit margins and a project delivery model shifting to a point where subcontractors are operating as “tier 1.5s”, as Keltbray CEO Brendan Kerr has previously described it.

Also speaking on day one, Bentley senior VP for project delivery Noah Eckhouse made a similarly resonant point.

“We need to blur the lines between pre-design, design, pre-construction, construction and operation,” he said, highlighting (perhaps inadvertently) an opportunity for main contractors to evolve.

One thing digital construction offers is a clearer view of an asset’s performance compared with the assertions made at its design and delivery stages. This in turn offers clients a model in which reimbursement for work performed can be made during that asset’s operation.

Extend that a little further, and we might start to see main contractors increasingly emerging as owner-operators.

Granted, there are a few ‘what ifs’ thrown in here. But one thing is for sure: as the digital revolution gathers pace, the current main contractor model is going to have to adapt – and at a fundamental level.

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