The digital transformation of the UK construction industry

The very best is yet to come

The Covid-19 pandemic, and lockdown in particular, has taken an undeniable toll on the UK construction industry. The Construction Product Association estimates that construction output overall could fall by as much as 25% in the year 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 lockdown, and the government’s ‘ build back better’ guidance, makes it clear that the UK construction industry cannot simply go back to normal. To ensure the survival of the industry, companies are forced to reconsider how to adapt to the new post-lockdown environment and ensure resilience for the future of the industry. In this article, we take a 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 considered 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 lockdown and will remain crucial for adapting to the post-pandemic UK landscape.

In order to retain, uptake, and make widespread use of digital technologies, several changes need to be made to the construction industry. 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 proposing 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.

In order 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 first launched this service in 2019 and planned for a wider 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 for remote workers to oversee activity on a construction site in real-time and operate machinery remotely. While some machinery can be operated by remote-controls without 5G, it is often a slow and cumbersome process. Remote working accommodates for less 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 and 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 to be one of the leading players for the future of the construction industry. 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 itself, 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 projects being delayed 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 in conjunction with Visual Reality to mimic different types of 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 occurred 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 that everything is as it should be.

While Visual Reality (VR) is already being used with AR to improve the safety of construction projects, it is not yet being put to widespread use in construction contexts. However, 65.3% of construction workers believe that VR will play an important 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 important role in the digital transformation of UK infrastructure.

Connected construction

Connected construction describes the method of connecting 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 the use of 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 on the basis of misinformation. It makes sure everyone is on the same page at every step of the process. It increases the visibility of projects, and therefore their transparency. It introduces the possibility of being able to learn from failures and successes of projects. It provides opportunities for collaboration. The collaborative process is made even better when it is supported by 5g technology, allowing for real-time interaction.

While connected construction is not as yet widely, 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 estimation process using connected, BIM-powered software. Megans Installations, using a cloud-based modelling and layout software, experienced a spike in their layout productivity.

Overall, connected construction is important 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, it is clear that 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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