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'Make construction cool again': The impact of new tech right now

Robots, VR, offsite: experts at the CN Summit’s technology seminar shed fresh light on exactly how all forms of technology are already turning the industry upside down.

“This industry is ripe for revolution.”

As summaries of the CN Summit’s technology seminar go, Huda As’ad’s was close to spot on.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s head of performance was discussing tech skills as part of the opening panel, but her sentiment could well be applied to much of the discussion on day two of the Summit.

From robots and autonomous vehicles through to virtual reality and offsite solutions, delegates were given insight into what technology means for construction – not just in the future, but right now.

Here are just some of the big takeaways to emerge.

Robots stealing jobs?

Of all the subjects up for debate, robotics in particular served to capture delegates’ imaginations. 

“We’re looking at autonomous vehicles and how that might affect how we work. I could see it happening within three years”

David Bray, Highways England

Several speakers emphasised that autonomous machines and vehicles were not some far-off concept; the tech was already here.

“Automation didn’t always suit construction, but now we have robots that can work alongside humans,” said Innovate UK director Sam Stacey. “Any construction plant can benefit from being autonomous.”

Highways England’s A14 project director David Bray gave a view from the coal face of his £1.5bn project. “We’re looking at autonomous vehicles and how that might affect how we work, how we need to set up sites,” he revealed. “It’s about how we manage the interfaces. I could see it happening within three years.”

There’s been plenty of talk about robotics replacing skilled labour. However, Autodesk strategist Matt Keen said those in his company “don’t see it that way”; rather, robots will “supplement people doing their day-to-day work”.

CN Summit 2018_Matt Keen Autodesk

CN Summit 2018_Matt Keen Autodesk

Autodesk’s Matt Keen said robots would “supplement people’s day-to-day work”

Artificial intelligence wasn’t just something for robotic workers and equipment, but could also be used in areas such as quality assurance – as HS2 BIM director Jon Kerbey explained.

“We’re starting to see organisations coming up with software that learns what a good design looks like,” he said. “This software takes previous designs and assets and alerts you to where designs are not good enough – health and safety risks, performance failings, etc.”

Digital Minecraft twins

Alongside robots, virtual reality is perhaps the trendiest of the tech trends infiltrating the industry right now – and provided plenty of talking points at the Summit.

Severn Trent head of asset management Malcolm Horne said: “The beauty of BIM and VR is we can allow our operators to wander around a new site and deal with issues there and then. Its ability to get stuff right [at the outset] is brilliant.”

“You can sit in a virtual train, look out the window and see what the surrounding HS2 assets look like” 

Jon Kerbey, HS2

VR’s entry into the public consciousness could also help engage young people, Mr Horne argued. “We’ve actually built digital twins of our assets in Minecraft and used them to engage with schoolchildren in a way they understand,” he told his panel.

HS2’s Mr Kerbey said the £55.7bn project had created a VR environment of ventshaft assets and their environment. “You can sit in a virtual train, look out the window and see what the surrounding HS2 assets look like,” he enthused. “This can be used as part of public consultations as well.”

Data data, everywhere…

On the technical side, the importance of the data behind these innovations was high up the agenda throughout, both in terms of sharing and storing it.

Autodesk’s Mr Keen had some sage advice for contractors: “Digitising your current work processes is the first step, as you can then start gathering data about how you’re working and performing.”

He added: “Most people talk about standardisation in terms of the end-product, but standardising your data is equally important.”

CN Summit 2018 Technology seminar JOB3008T0249

CN Summit 2018 Technology seminar JOB3008T0249

However, Severn Trent’s Mr Horne identified a crucial obstacle: “I’ve got loads of data; your ability to sift through and act on that is the differentiator. Our investment is in analytics.”

There were also question marks about the information being recorded. “Are we actually collecting the most useful data in the first place?” asked Aecom associate director Roma Agrawal. “We still don’t measure how much stress and strain piles are under, for example.”

One thing every speaker agreed on was the industry’s need for more analysts and data scientists – and fast.

Offsite take-off

Similar levels of consensus are emerging over the prospects for offsite construction. With the government having committed to a preference for offsite in its procurement, the Summit seminar outlined the critical next steps in this area.

“The UK market is fragile, the returns are very small. Margins aren’t sustainable enough to be investing in these kinds of things”

Maya Jani, Heathrow

“The great barrier to that is fluctuating demand,” Innovate UK’s Mr Stacey argued. “We need to ensure consistent client demand. Something that can address this is temporary or flexible factories,” he said, citing Skanska’s work on the A14 creating modular bridge sections that used 53 per cent less labour and saved £4m. 

Heathrow expansion procurement director Maya Jani pointed out that margins needed to improve: “The UK market is fragile, the returns are very small – we see what happened to Carillion. Margins aren’t sustainable enough to be investing in these kinds of things.”

However, she emphasised that making progress was vital. “We have to do things in a different way; we’re not going to be able to divert the M25 and build over it by doing things the way we’ve always done,” referring to the airport’s expansion plans.

Cast director Michelle Hannah remained positive that offsite had reached a tipping point: “This time is different. It’s not because companies have to do it; it’s that they’ve reached the end-point of how they’ve done things up to now.”

A satnav for construction

Of course, one thing all of these digital innovations and market shifts require is the right skillset.

Ms As’ad argued that advanced technology was essential to attracting skilled youngsters. “By increasing the tech, you’re opening the industry up to sections of the population that would never have considered it,” she said.

CN Summit 2018 Roma Agrawal Aecom JOB3008T1462

CN Summit 2018 Roma Agrawal Aecom JOB3008T1462

Aecom’s Roma Agrawal asked: ‘Are we collecting the most useful data in the first place?’ 

Striking the right balance between experienced workers and their tech-savvy successors took up much of the discussion. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect people from different generations to change their behaviours overnight,” Aecom’s Ms Agrawal said. “It’s about using each worker’s attributes to create a better workforce.”

Highways England’s Mr Bray gave an example from the A14. “Out on site we need to embrace the older and younger workers,” he said. “We invested in Surface Pros to use them for Skype. But the younger guys now use them to display drone footage of the site as part of daily briefings for all workers.”

Mr Stacey added that software could complement the upskilling of existing workers. “You’ve got experts in the industry who have learned their trade by coming through the existing system, and that makes it very hard to change. That’s where AI and machine learning comes in – a satnav for the construction industry.”

In terms of training itself, Ms Agrawal offered an eye-catching opinion. “I think the sort of engineering courses we currently offer will become obsolete,” she predicted. 

“Why aren’t we using people with general science degrees that can problem-solve, crunch numbers, analyse data? I wonder whether all these single-discipline degrees should merge into something more relevant. What you’d have then is a way of thinking, rather than just very specific knowledge.”

Ultimately, all these technological advancements can change perceptions of the industry, panellists stressed – especially among the next generation.

Having declared construction “ripe for revolution”, Ms As’ad added: “We need to find what people want, and work out how to make construction cool again.”

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