The digital transformation of the UK construction industry

UK construction faces challenges and opportunities in digital transformation, focusing on 5G, AR/VR, and connected construction for future resilience.

The very best is yet to come

The Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the lockdown, has taken an undeniable toll on the UK construction industry. The Construction Products Association estimates that overall construction output could fall by as much as 25% in 2020. While travel restrictions have hit the aviation and transport industry the hardest, construction projects across the board have been paused, delayed or abandoned due to the government’s stay-at-home guidance.

As lockdown restrictions ease, construction companies are now in a position to start working again. The effects of the lockdown and the government’s ‘build back better’ guidance make it clear that the UK construction industry cannot return to normal. To ensure the industry’s survival, companies are forced to reconsider how to adapt to the new post-lockdown environment and ensure resilience for the industry’s future. In this article, we look at the potential of digital technology to transform UK construction into the resilient industry it strives to be.

Greater uptake of digital technology

To increase the efficiency and resilience of the construction industry, the uptake of digital technology must be accelerated. Digital technology can no longer be considered a luxury but instead felt a necessity. The digital technology that construction companies already utilise has been critical for the survival of many of these companies. Digital sign-offs, for example, have allowed companies to continue delivering products and accepting deliveries themselves. Technologies using augmented reality have allowed managers of construction sites to work from home and implement change. These new technologies have been crucial to continue construction work during a lockdown and will remain essential for adapting to the post-pandemic UK landscape.

Several changes need to be made to the construction industry to retain, uptake, and make widespread use of digital technologies. Traditionally, this industry has developed a poor reputation for the uptake of these types of technologies. For many years, there has been a ‘tried-and-tested approach, requiring start-ups to propose new initiatives and technologies to prove the effectiveness of their product to multiple clients again and again before being accepted. This process means that many start-ups collapse before getting the chance to prove themselves, a pattern that fails the client, the company and the start-ups.

To move forward and thrive in the post-COVID landscape, the construction industry needs to cut back on red tape, work to change cultural attitudes surrounding new technologies and upskill more of their workforce to be able to use these technologies.

The 5G Future

5G is fast becoming the main focus for the digital transformation of the UK Construction industry. 5G promises a more reliable, faster internet with greater capacity than previous models. EE launched this service in 2019 and planned a broader rollout in 2020. The first construction site in the UK to use this technology was the China State Construction Engineering Corp earlier this year. It is widely considered that 5G has the potential to transform the construction industry across all projects and at every stage of construction delivery.

Firstly, the speed at which 5G operates allows for real-time data collection, capture and analysis, also allowing for real-time decision-making. Multiple users at any one time can more easily access intensive edge and cloud applications and interact with each other. This is of particular use to the construction industry, which often relies on the input of individuals from multiple teams spread out geographically, using complex computer systems to carry out their work. 5G also boasts low latency rates, allowing remote workers to oversee activity on a construction site in real time and operate machinery remotely. While remote controls can operate some machinery without 5G, it is often slow and cumbersome. Remote working accommodates fewer workers needing to work on-site. This is of particular use today in the post-lockdown landscape.

5G is also useful for monitoring the status of site machinery and components; factors such as operational availability, changes to plans and remote operations can be collected and recorded in real time. In addition, large and complex data formats like videos can be quickly stored, analysed and sent to common data environments so that they are instantly accessible to multiple users.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

Among the digital technologies that 5G promises to transform, Augmented Reality (AR) is considered one of the leading players in the construction industry’s future. AR describes the integration of computer-generated and camera-generated images of a project. In construction, this technology allows the user to visualise what a building project will look like before the building has even begun.

AR can be used to improve the efficiency of a construction project during the planning phase. By transferring design models onto the building site, users can easily spot any design flaws and resolve them by simply altering the model. This method makes it easier to identify potential flaws than methods that don’t use AR, where 3D design models are turned into 2D documents after every change is made to a project. AR then increases efficiency and reduces costs by reducing the likelihood of delayed projects because of issues spotted in the building and completion stage. This method can also be used for educational purposes, to train students to spot potential hazards in a safe environment and with no significant consequence.

AR can also be used to improve the safety of a construction project. It can be used with Visual Reality to mimic accidents that could arise on a building site. This alerts staff to potential hazards on the site and informs them of what to do if an accident occurs in real life. External agencies like fire brigades can even be brought in to use AR to highlight hazards that need to be addressed on-site. Similarly, ‘wearable’ AR technology allows users to scan building sites using AR goggles to identify safety issues. This can also be used on-site to ‘see’ behind walls and under floors to ensure everything is as it should be.

While virtual reality (VR) is already being used with AR to improve the safety of construction projects, it is not yet used widely in construction contexts. However, 65.3% of construction workers believe that VR will play an essential role in the future of construction. VR is distinct from Augmented Reality as it is an immersive and interactive, solely computer-generated experience. The interactive element could facilitate designers to trial innovations or alterations to a building site before any construction takes place.

In conclusion, it is clear that both Augmented and Virtual Reality could play an essential role in the digital transformation of UK infrastructure.

Connected Construction

Connected construction connects all teams involved in a construction project through digital technology. This is made possible using a common data environment such as cloud technology. The data environment relies on tools and equipment like sensors on building sites, 3D data to allow designers to create building profiles in real time, and digital dashboards with real-time notifications of status updates from a project.

Connected construction makes sure that everyone has all of the information they need. This increases efficiency by reducing the likelihood of teams working based on misinformation. It ensures everyone is on the same page at every process step. It increases the visibility of projects and, therefore, their transparency. It introduces the possibility of learning from the failures and successes of projects. It provides opportunities for collaboration. The collaborative process is even better when supported by 5g technology, allowing for real-time interaction.

While connected construction is not as widely used, there is persuasive evidence of the success it could bring the construction industry once it becomes more incorporated. Brown and Read Engineering, for instance, quadrupled their productivity around the estimation process using connected, BIM-powered software. Megans Installations, using cloud-based modelling and layout software, experienced a spike in their layout productivity.

Overall, connected construction is essential for the digital transformation of the UK construction industry as it allows us to agree on a shared vision for the future of infrastructure; this is crucial now more than ever.

In conclusion, the digital transformation of UK construction is vital to ensure the survival and resilience of the industry for the future. The paths for transformation include:

  • Accelerating the uptake of digital technologies.
  • Harnessing 5G technology.
  • Increasing the use of Augmented Reality and focusing on connected construction.

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