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Fast-tracking the digital transformation of the construction industry

The IET’s recent Digitally Built conference provided the perfect opportunity to consider the impact of digitisation within the Built Environment Sector. Whilst concern was expressed about the slow rate of progress secured towards the goal of a wholly digitised supply chain, there were several transformational success stories from construction champions deploying digital tools from robotics and virtual reality to cyber security, blockchain IOT and beyond. Read our review. Watch the presentations on IEt.tv.

The rise of digital technologies has been changing the way we live and work, for some time. Yet the speed and scale of transformation has varied markedly across industry sectors.

Engineers, managers and academics attending the recent ‘Digitising Construction’ event took time out to consider how the UK construction industry was performing, reviewing progress to date and setting out the next steps needed to advance further digital disruption and innovation.  IET President Jeremy Watson welcomes delegates  

The event, held at Savoy Place, comprised two streams over two consecutive days in April 2017: 

  • The IET’s ‘Digitally Built’ stream explored how UK construction could achieve greater transparency, efficiencies and reduction in costs through digital transformation.
  • BRE’s ‘BIM Prospects’ stream examined the scope and scale of UK adoption of Building Information Modeling – an intelligent 3D model-based process that provides insights and tools to architects, engineers and construction professionals when planning, designing, constructing and managing buildings and infrastructure.

IET President Professor Jeremy Watson CBE, also BRE’s Chief Scientist and Professor of Engineering Systems at UCL provided the opening address on day one. “Tremendous value was added by combining the two streams,” he said. “Following opening addresses by Professor Tim Broyd, President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and myself, harmonised agendas provided the opportunity to hear about emerging practice in the application of Level 2 Building Information Modelling , and future developments such as BIM Level 3 (and above).” Ian Davies BRE - Scene setting in the Maxwell Library  

There was no shortage of feedback and comments from speakers and delegates alike, when it came to the level to which the UK construction industry was embracing and adopting digital technologies such as BIM. Opinion was divided.  

  • In his keynote address, Tim Broyd made the point that tangible commitment to a radical process of change within the UK construction industry was absolutely vital. He said the industry had to catalyse change in three key areas - Productivity, behaviours and resilience.
  • Dale Sinclair, Director of Technical Practice, AECOM and the Construction Industry Council’s BIM Champion spoke of a ‘number of concurrent innovation cures’ which could lead to a multiple innovation crisis as a consequence of various and associated sectors undergoing change at the same time. This would make the challenge of a ‘move towards digital’ even harder.
Stark statistics from UK BIM Alliance’s John Enyon
UK BIM Alliance’s John Enyon spoke of the massive challenge facing the industry to secure 100% BIM Level 2 as ‘business as usual’ by 2020. Despite everyone’s best efforts in reaching out to inform the industry over the last six years, he estimated as many as 90% of people in the industry were unaware of or failing to take vital steps towards adopting the standard. “We must seek to build an open, transparent and digitally empowered system for consumers to understand and drive their built environment,” he said.

There were several references to the Government-backed report “Modernise or die: The Farmer Review of the UK construction labour model”. The report can be downloaded from the UK government website.

  • BuildingSMART CEO, Richard Petrie spoke about digital technology completely upending traditional business models. Consumers expected service and products to get better and cheaper. No surprise then, the building and infrastructure industries were ripe for disruptive change. ‘Open Digital Standards’ were essential together with the use of more open applications in BIM. Accenture Dock Building in Dublin  
  • Among the highlights from those who’d successfully applied BIM was a case study on Accenture’s Dock building in Dublin by Hugo Palengat. ”Digital is not only about the design and production of buildings,” he said. “It’s also the people who use them”. It was an excellent example of how people can use a building to improve both productivity and live-ability. The project secured notable benefits including 75% direct energy savings through connected lighting, 15-20% savings on Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) energy costs and 10% increase in space utilisation.  May Winfield on Graham Herries' BIM interplay with Industry 4.0
  • “If I took away all your phones and computers, could you go back to life as it was before?”remonstrated Construction Products Association CEO, Peter Capelhorn in his keynote. “Currently we draw every project 2.5 times and construct it 1.5 times,” he said. “Engagement is not a choice; it’s an industry game changer.”BIM was about securing efficiencies - faster, cheaper, better in every way.
  • Graham Herries, Director Digital Technologies at Laing O Rourke, spoke about the increasing use of off-site manufacture for construction, citing the recent example of the impressive Francis Crick Institute. “It’s all about manufacture and design for manufacture and assembly,” he said. These added unique benefits for their client, one of which was design once, build twice – a building and its digital twin.
  • “Is there a future for block chain in infrastructure?” challenged Balfour Beatty’s Neil Thompson. He went on to consider the problem of a market structure – centralised vs decentralised control, which leads to information asymmetry. On the basis that it helps cash flow and gives a proof of work done, it could lead to possible outputs – a ‘structcoin’ similar to bitcoin or trader transfer trust/fair payments system which will benefit SMEs.
  • “Data is the raw material of the 21st century” said Paul Surin, Head of Built Environment at brick manufacturer Weinerberger. He spoke about the work Weinerberger are doing to learn from the automotive sector to develop an optimized, manufacturer-led supply chain.
  • IBM’s Mel Temple provided some notable if not scary statistics. For building owners, operations represent 71% of the total cost of a building over its life time and yet, approximately a third of all commercial building space goes unused. Barely 10% of data captured is actually being used and yet by 2020, it’s estimated that the number of connected Internet of Things devices, all producing data, will soar to 29 billion. Dassault Systemes’ John Stokoe provided one of the best quotes from the event when he said: “As industry takes the first, hesitant steps across the threshold of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The trigger for faster transformation is likely to be the SME supply chain as it seizes the initiative to embrace the digital age. This will generate efficiencies and speed up the decision/action cycle to stay at the forefront of progress, creating the competitive edge so vital in today's connected economy.”
Mel Temple on how IoT is shaping the future of smart buildings
In his summing up,Blane Judd, Chair oftheIET’s Built Environment Sector concluded that there was no such thing as solo collaboration and that joint ideas and action, right across the industry, were needed. We needed to create a market place where there is a win win for the whole length of the supply chain.

Presentations from both ‘Digitising Construction’ streams – the IET’s Digitally Built and BRE’s BIM Prospects can be viewed online. Visit IET.tv and key in ‘Digitising Construction 2017’ in the Search box.