Construction has always been among the slowest sectors to invest in artificial intelligence (AI), but a renewed shift towards accelerating innovation, driven by the impact of COVID-19, may see that change.
AI automates human tasks, improving productivity, efficiency and consistency and reducing the potential for human error.
The adoption of BIM and project management software systems has increased significantly over recent years. Some solutions that use machine learning to specifically create 3D models of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems that do not clash with building architecture and will show an optimal model for each iteration.
Large scale projects require the coordination of many complicated tasks and moving parts and would be difficult to control without the assistance of technology. The consequences of a small mistake can be huge. The root cause of the issues that delayed the opening of the £150 million Edinburgh Royal Hospital for Sick Children was recently identified in a review as ‘human error’ in copying data to a spreadsheet.
The technology is developing at a pace that far outstrips take up in construction. Robots can now produce the structural elements of a building for assembly on site and there are machines capable of laying bricks consistently and accurately at many times the speed of a skilled bricklayer.
The use of drones for site survey has become increasingly common. Imagine a future where drones could identify automatically whether workers are wearing the correct PPE or flag up areas on site that are likely to flood based on predicted weather patterns? If this seems fanciful, remember that the military has been operating drones to surveil and destroy enemy positions from thousands of miles away.
The rollout of 5G mobile data networks is potentially one of the biggest game changers for the growth of AI. It increases the capacity for data collection and analysis that will enhance the application of automated technology. With fast reliable networks, the Internet Of Things can be used with AI to monitor conditions onsite, identifying anything that is missed, assess productivity and forecast late completion or budget overruns.
Artificial Intelligence, robotics and the Internet of Things could reduce building costs by up to 20% in a sector that has resolutely failed to improve productivity for decades. It’s unlikely to replace the human workforce, but it would change construction by reducing expensive errors and improving safety and efficiency.
The Government is determined that the UK must ‘Build Back Better’ to drive post pandemic economic recovery. The rapid integration of AI will play a significant role in achieving that ambition.
The latest data from industry analysts Barbour ABI indicates the continued ‘V’ shaped recovery in construction with an 80.3% increase in the number of contract awards in July.
This is an increase in total value from £3.1bn in June to £6.3bn with residential and infrastructure accounting for 50% of the share of total contract awards.
The upturn is certainly sharper than most in the sector predicted and there is clear momentum from three consecutive months of growth. However, it’s still too early to predict with any certainty how steep or how long the incline will be.
The Government’s ‘build, build, build’ strategy puts construction at the centre of its plans for economic recovery, hoping to repeat the success of a similar approach in the wake of the second world war.
The question is whether the uncertainty of the wider economic outlook will put the brakes on the early momentum we are currently seeing.
The Construction Products Association predicts that output in the sector will fall by 20.6% in 2020 with doubts about longer term demand. It identifies a fragility in long term confidence for new housing developments with the prospect of unemployment and signs of lender appetite worsening. Consumer confidence is impacting the commercial sector with shifts to e-commerce and homeworking that affect retail and city centre office development.
There are still huge unknowns around the impact of Brexit. The current negotiations show no sign of progress and the clock is ticking down towards the October deadline that the EU requires to ratify agreements with its 27 members by the end of the year.
Let’s not forget the potential for a second wave of infections in the autumn that could send the country back into lockdown and instantly reverse construction’s gains from the last three months.
Last year the construction sector’s output of £413bn was equivalent to 8.6% of GDP. It employs more than three million people. Continued growth in construction is crucial to the UK’s economy but there are still some significant potholes along the road to recovery.
The lack of diversity in construction has been a problem for many years, yet the pace of change remains slow. The sector has challenged itself to adopt a more unified approach to achieve faster progress in tackling the issue.
The UK workforce is more diverse than it has ever been with ethnic minorities making up 12% of the working age population. But research shows that the construction workforce is around 3% black, Asian, minority ethnic (BAME). The proportion of women has been static at 13% for some time after reaching a peak of 19% in recent years.
Construction knows it has a lot to do and every professional body within the industry promotes diversity and inclusion as a high priority . The sector is not consciously discriminatory but a survey by Hay last year suggests that perhaps there is an element of unconscious bias. It identified that 78% of black workers feel their career progression opportunities are limited because of discrimination, compared to 41% of white employees. Only 32% of BAME workers believed their voice is heard and respected at their company, compared to 43% of all employees.
Employers and industry bodies are working hard to tackle the issues. Earlier this year, the Building and Engineering Services Association called on the government to create a strategy for diversity in the construction and engineering sectors. That may be a way to bring the industry together and encourage more women and people from BAME backgrounds to take up careers in the industry.
There is also a role for stronger leadership to promote the issue. The loudest voices in the industry are usually from champions of the cause who are themselves women or identify as BAME. We need to see more white, male CEO’s speaking up as the champions of change.
While there is an absolute moral imperative to improve diversity, research shows that it could also a be a key driver for innovation in the sector. A McKinsey report on diversity shows that gender-diverse companies are more likely to perform better than non-diverse companies, with ethnically diverse companies 35% more likely to perform better. The more varied a group’s collective experiences and background are, the wider their knowledge base will become.
The lack of diversity is not news to anyone in construction, but successful improvement will depend on collective will and industry leaders working together to act on it.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which provides independent advice to Government on preparing climate change, recently called for ministers to seize the opportunity of a post coronavirus plan to make construction greener as it recovers.
A couple of weeks later the Government announced its £3bn green investment package to support 140,00 jobs. £2bn will go towards Green Home Grants for homeowners and landlords to insulate properties. A further £1bn will be used to improve energy efficiency in public sector buildings.
While the announcement was welcomed across the industry, there are still some reservations that the devil is in the unannounced detail. For example, the £1bn for public buildings is only for one year and there is doubt that government departments and local authorities will have time to resource this effectively.
In July, the Institution of Civil Engineers published its report, State of the Nation 2020 Infrastructure and the net-zero target. ICE President, Paul Sheffield cautions in his foreword that the industry needs to remain focused on climate change and the 2050 target.
The report makes several recommendations and highlights that the infrastructure we deliver today needs to be consistent with a net zero target that may sound deceptively distant to some. It identifies the economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a unique opportunity for the UK to recalibrate its approach and rebuild the economy around the net-zero target.
The Government was quick to remove the barriers to innovation new thinking in its efforts to inspire the innovation that built Nightingale hospitals in a matter of weeks. The sector needs to maintain that momentum and use the Construction Sector Deal to drive innovation that achieves sustainable solutions using modern methods. That also means ridding construction of the insidious “lowest price’ culture in procurement and focusing on added value and whole life cost.
With construction directly influencing almost half of the UK’s carbon emissions and two thirds of its waste, achieving success in the sector is critical to the nation. How long can a sector that knows what needs to be done keep repeating the mistakes of the past?
Anyone who has any doubts about the chances of success in achieving zero-carbon should hop on a plane to Copenhagen, a city that adopted a plan in 2009 and will be carbon neutral by 2025.
There’s a lot of noise about construction’s need for a ‘new normal’, putting the lessons of the COVID-19 response into practice to deliver the long held ambitions of improved productivity and sustainability.
But isn’t this the shift in paradigm that the construction industry has been talking about for years while doing the same old thing over and over again?
McKinsey recently published its “The Next Normal in Construction” report on how disruption is reshaping construction. The report offers an excellent analysis of the sources of disruption for a sector that has consistently underperformed for decades. It predicts a more standardised, consolidated and integrated construction process than today’s highly complex, fragmented and project based process.
The report reiterates what the industry and government have wrestled with for some time. It’s four years since the Farmer’s Modernise or Die report was published and two years since the Government’s Construction Sector Deal was announced. Yet up until March this year, there was little evidence that many of the recommendations were gaining traction.
We are now at a moment in time where the construction sector needs to reset, capitalising on the momentum of innovation and disruption that was accelerated by COVID-19. Artificial Intelligence, digital engineering, offsite construction, along with collaborative procurement all have a major role to play in driving a new approach to increase productivity and quality across the sector.
There is no reason that change shouldn’t be immediate. Yes, there are new safety regulations about distancing and contact to comply with, but the resource, knowledge and expertise that drove rapid innovative solutions during the pandemic have been ignored for years in a sector unwilling to change.
The UK Government has just announced an infrastructure pipeline that includes 340 procurement contracts, across more than 260 projects. It’s a broad range of work that covers construction and civil engineering, repair and maintenance, architectural and consultancy services and is worth £37 billion over the next year.
The pipeline is the perfect opportunity to implement the ‘new normal’ and focus on modern methods of construction to deliver a new normal that is efficient, productive and sustainable.
The tools are all there to achieve the ‘new normal’. The sector just needs to pick them up and get on with it.
Up until very recently, construction had been one of the less affected sectors in the global pandemic crisis. As sites now close and work grinds to a halt across the country, the industry is understandably too busy right now to look beyond the immediate crisis, but when restrictions do eventually ease how will the sector recover?
This is a sector that, even before the devastating impact of the virus, was already in the emergency room waiting for a new treatment. Twenty two firms entered administration in January, with a 158 in stages of liquidation and a further 67 in meetings with creditors. At that time, before any impact of coronavirus was considered, the estimate was that around 4,000 construction firms would cease trading in 2020. As the economic impact of government restrictions tighten over the next few weeks, the sad reality is that many more businesses than ever imagined will be forced to close.
How quickly the sector can recover when the crisis subsides will depend on a number of factors. Supply chain capacity is likely to be severely limited as a result of the disruption. The health of the banking sector will have a significant impact on recovery, dictating how willing the banks are to allow delayed payments to support business liquidity.
Perhaps though, when faint light appears at what currently feels like a pretty long tunnel, the time will have come to make some of the changes that the industry has been talking about for years. Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” and while this crisis will have a devasting effect on in the sector, it may also be the opportunity for a reset. Short term change in working practices for a few weeks may not last, but we are all in this for the long haul and many will realise that their new approaches to deal with the crisis need not be temporary.
Government and public organisations are using emergency powers to streamline as much bureaucracy as possible in areas like procurement. Businesses are thinking more creatively to rapidly innovate new solutions using different processes. Technology is already playing a major part in changing how businesses operate and survive the crisis. The Farmer Report’s mantra of ‘modernise or die’ could not be more relevant than it is today.
Artificial Intelligence, digital engineering and offsite construction all have a major role to play in driving productivity and quality across the sector. However, their benefits have too often been overlooked in preference for doing things the ‘way we always have’.
Einstein also said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”, which is what construction in the UK has been doing for years.
When this is over the construction sector will recover, hopefully quickly, but it needs to ensure that the crisis does not mask the problems that already existed, and in doing so, create the opportunity to reset and change for long term success.