Incidents such as the Grenfell Tower tragedy and Mascot and Opal Tower evacuations have affected trust in the construction industry. create spoke to industry experts about how going digital could help.
In 2016, McKinsey and Co reported that construction was the second-least digitalised sector in the world.
According to Professor Srinath Perera, Director of Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction, increased digitalisation could reduce costs and improve productivity, efficiency and accountability and compliance with building standards.
“We want to give people confidence that the buildings they are occupying are safe and reliable. To do this we need to improve digitalisation of the construction sector,” he said.
But there are tools that can help. In particular, ‘smart’ construction technologies such as building information modelling (BIM) can create a ‘digital twin’ of buildings, including the structure and services such as plumbing, electrical and fire protection systems. This improves communication between the many different engineering disciplines involved in building design, architects and other stakeholders.
Perera is one of the authors of a recent report initiated by Construct NSW which investigates the digital readiness of the state’s construction industry. The report found that 42 per cent of the sector was approaching mid-level digital maturity. But only 29 per cent had smart capability equivalent to BIM.
Engineers Australia supported the research and facilitated the participation of members in the survey that informed the report.
Trust is a major driver
The report drew on data from a survey of 542 NSW building designers and builders involved in the construction of medium to high rise residential buildings. Seventy per cent wanted to increase digitalisation to achieve greater accuracy and trustworthiness. Other top drivers were improving quality and standards (66 per cent) and delivering on time, on budget and to required quality (61 per cent).
The major barriers to digitalisation were high software license costs (67 per cent) and hardware expenses (57 per cent). This was particularly true for small organisations with fewer than 20 staff, which make up 80 per cent of NSW’s construction industry.
More than half of the survey respondents (55 per cent) said a further obstacle to digitalisation was that construction design fees did not reflect the level of expertise involved in the design process.
“We need to help buyers understand how the quality of the engineering design can have a big impact on the quality of buildings,” said Professor Gianluca Ranzi, Director of the Centre for Advanced Structural Engineering, from the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney.
“Digitalisation is expected to contribute to the design process and its quality, for example, by facilitating the integration of design inputs from different disciplines.”
Ranzi is leading Engineers Australia’s efforts in pillar six of the NSW building reform process. This involves building the reputation for quality research, and developing a baseline to measure the sector’s ability to improve the community’s confidence in the construction industry.
Engineers of the future
Ranzi said the benefits of the increased uptake of digital technology opens the door for engineers to consider what their roles will look like in the next five years and beyond.
“We have an opportunity to redefine the role of engineers and how they will influence society in the future,” he explained.
One aspect will be how engineers in the construction industry will gain skills in current digital technologies such as BIM and 3D model printing, and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.
Most training in digital technologies is a combination of external courses and ‘on the job’ learning, with more experienced and proficient staff mentoring and training others. Ranzi said this would work well for digitalisation of 2D drawings as most employees were familiar with the software and tools involved. But for more advanced technologies, external training would be needed to make sure organisations could build and maintain in-house expertise.
“It would be great to see a wider use of in-house training to support a wider acceptance of digital technologies and their integration within the design process,” Ranzi said.
Opportunity for cooperation
Ranzi said the report was a good example of how research could assist governments in establishing effective strategies to improve trust and confidence in the construction industry.
“There is a great opportunity in the construction sector for government, industry and research organisations to come together and contribute to the needs of the broader community,” he added.
While the report focused on medium to high rise residential buildings, Perera said more widespread adoption of advanced digital technologies would help improve safety and confidence across the whole sector.
“Construction claims are common and widespread across all types of buildings and civil and infrastructure constructions,” he explained.
Perera suggested government mandates for digitalisation of certain building practices could also help accelerate industry uptake.
Press added that a key feature of digital transformation of the construction industry is government collaboration with industry.
“We want to deliver outcomes that measurably move the dial in favour of a more customer-centric, productive and capable sector. So it’s vital that the industry is not just in the boat with us floating along for the ride but that they are also holding an oar,” he said.
Press praised Engineers Australia for focusing on embedding professional standards in its membership and providing training on best practice approaches to digitalisation.
“Digital technology such as BIM is only an enabler. It needs a skilled and capable workforce to operate it,” he said.