The adoption of digital technologies is a huge opportunity for the UK construction industry, providing a wide array of potential benefits including improved productivity, increased quality and efficiency, heightened collaboration, and enhanced innovative capabilities. The Centre of Economics and Business Research (CEBR) recently reported construction could see a potential £3bn uplift from continuous digital investment, creating a £167bn industry by 2040.
It is widely reported that digital reform has lagged in the construction industry falling short of being ranked lowest worldwide only to agriculture, however, use of digital technology in the industry has doubled in the last decade and is rapidly transforming the built environment.
The covid-19 pandemic imposed a significant shift in tech adoption, allowing firms to settle into the ‘new normal’. Working remotely required investment in cloud databases permitting real-time sharing of documents and data between multiple stakeholders. The use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), augmented reality (AR) and drones aided safer ways of working by minimising risk and allowing for better coordination of the workforce to reduce the physical presence and safeguard wellbeing.
Yet there are still demands for the industry to further embrace digital technologies, in order to address the many challenges the built environment currently faces. To continue momentum and increase viability, digitalisation needs to become an embedded culture. Recent government guidance, including the Construction Playbook, that stress the importance of digitalisation and promote the use of BIM and digital twins, will help drive this change, compelling companies to evolve and adapt, thus ensuring they remain competitive. Nevertheless, without a true understanding of what these technologies can do and how they should be effectively utilised, progression will be inhibited. There is a real urgency to digitally upskill the industry workforce, and this requires the modification of education and training to equip both current and future employees with the necessary digital and technical skills. With this knowledge a ‘digitally built Britain’ is an achievable prospect. It would allow us to challenge the traditional methods of working and could provide effective solutions across a broad spectrum of construction processes.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used by construction firms to support tender submissions and pre-construction processes. The technology helps optimise pre-construction programmes through data analysis to provide active identification of risk and potential savings, improving project delivery. Kier is one of the first construction companies in the UK to use AI in this manner. Proactive as this is, the scope of AI is vast and can provide the industry with technical solutions for priority objectives such as sustainability and carbon. AI systems are being created to recommend materials based on predicted embodied carbon. Not only will this technology help combat the climate emergency, but it is also estimated to reduce the required manhours by up to 90%.
3D printing can provide similar benefits. This technology has far exceeded the creation of demonstrative scale models over the last decade with contractors now investing in 3D printed concrete to deliver new bridges and commercial offices. At the rate in which this trend is growing, the global market is expected to reach over £1bn by 2024. This isn’t surprising given 3D printing provides design flexibility, material waste reduction (c.40%) and huge time savings (c.60%).
Blockchain analytic tools and smart contracts are addressing the immense shift to remote working and the increasing use of cryptocurrencies. This innovative software aims to increase efficiency by decreasing the administrative workload. They can be used as automated bookkeeping systems, alerting teams when individual packages of works or project milestones have been completed and automatically generate invoices.
Advances in technology will always present challenges and raise concerns, one being potential workforce reduction and therefore diminished job security. KMPG predicted a 50:50 ratio of humans and machines by 2025. However, given the dynamic nature of construction, an automated ‘one size fits all’ approach isn’t realistic so it is unlikely this ratio will be realised. Industry experts believe digitalisation will dramatically increase the number of job opportunities across construction and could help reverse the negative perception, attracting new talent, a more diverse workforce and greater innovation into the industry.
With the growth of digital technology emerges an exciting new era for construction. The future offers great potential to vastly improve the current methods of working for construction professionals and provide solution to many of the key challenges currently confronting the industry. Transformation has never been more within reach and it would be a travesty not to seize this opportunity.
Words by Christie Commins, Business Development Manager, Kier Construction