Until recently, the construction industry has suffered a technology by-pass, relying on centuries-old processes and procedures to manage dazzlingly complex modern projects. Today, however, the same software applications that make manufacturing industries so efficient are being deployed in building construction with transformative results says John Stokoe Head of Strategic Development EuroNorth, Dassault Systèmes.
In 50 years of the most accelerated technological advances, a period in which industry after industry has used technology to improve efficiency, the art of building has lagged far behind. Consequently, studies of the construction industry by The National Institute of Standards and Technology SITC, as well as Tulacz and Armistead, have documented 25% to 50% waste in coordinating labour and in managing, moving, and installing materials. In many cases talent and skill are underused, avoidable accidents happen and productivity remains low.
The only upside to these statistics is that the construction industry offers tremendous potential for gains in efficiency levels, simply by applying the same proven processes, practices and technologies already common in more automated industries. With high projections of growth –PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that by the end of this decade, construction will account for more than 13% of the global economy; the time is ripe for change.
Current thinking is that the construction industry needs to look to history for inspiration – specifically to economist Adam Smith.
Adam Smith’s ideas of segregating tasks and the division of labour have been implemented in engineering over the last 250 years to produce an abundance of goods at affordable prices. This increase is the result of productivity that has been accelerated through the application of Statistical Process Control (SPC) on a unified business platform that helps both to generate supply and to satisfy demand.
Process models for construction have remained largely the same for hundreds of years, with highly skilled labour carrying out tasks for which they are over qualified 80% of the time. Simply externalising work, i.e. making components in a factory, enables manufacture by lower skilled operators. This cuts cost, improves quality, reduces on-site re-work and allows total operational control. In this system, work onsite consists of assembly of quality-assured parts, each guaranteed to be fit for purpose.
Applying SPC to the automotive industry allowed cars to become better and more affordable. The lack of the same methodology in construction has contributed to waste and to soaring prices.
But this is about to change because new technology oriented companies are looking at construction as a huge opportunity. We are also seeing contractors joining into larger groups. They are changing building and construction from a cyclical, low-tech, physically exhausting and unsafe industry to one reinventing itself and attracting new innovative talent.
Stacking problems occur when small errors in structural components multiply over multiple floors. This leads to electrical, power and other services, such as heating and ventilating, no longer fitting the structure. That usually requires the deployment of highly skilled workers on-site, remodelling concrete with rock drills or making expensive and potentially problematic changes to mechanical services at the point of fitting. Statistical variation techniques, which have been standard practice in the automotive industry for 60 years, would solve the problem at a stroke.
Unfortunately, construction industry investment in research and development is among the lowest of any major industry. But when you start to innovate with technology to drive the use of standardized products and modularised processes, productivity gains are spectacular. 3D simulation technology has made significant inroads into architectural design and fabrication to excellent effect, but process modelling is virtually still non-existent.
To increase efficiency, eliminate waste, and increase profit margins, companies in the construction industry, as well as governments, must invest in R&D. If they don’t, they should be prepared for extinction at the hands of more technologically sophisticated competitors from within or beyond the construction industry. Those that have invested achieve cost reductions and quality improvements that let their companies win contract after contract. New types of companies are building at 40% lower cost. Zero-error buildings are being made where the reduction of re-work is producing bigger profits for those involved.
Attracting outside talent to newly structured construction enterprises gives them a much needed and valuable intellectual boost. The construction industry is being changed by a small number of very clever and enterprising people who are transforming the industry by taking new approaches, even going beyond 3D simulation implementing new technologies like 3D printing for construction. Unshackled by tradition and equipped with portable, powerful robust and unified platform technology, they are bringing the business into the 21st century.
Construction industry players who don’t step up to the challenge of modernising their processes contribute to holding back the entire industry. The construction industry would do well to look at the legendary thinker and teacher W. Edwards Deming, who made significant contributions to industrial science and practice. Deming proved that individual performance could only be improved by “elevating the entire system.”
Using ideas from Newton, Adam Smith and, in the 20th century, Deming, and combining these with a single universally accessible business platform, the whole of Industry has been able to progress to its current advanced state. Generally, the construction industry did not follow the same enlightened path. Unless prompt action is undertaken, it will be surprised by new companies using advanced 3D simulation control and command technology that efficiently capitalises the massive economic opportunities that present themselves in this rapidly growing industry sector.
John Stokoe CB CBE
Head of Strategic Development EuroNorth, Dassault Systèmes
As Head of Strategic Development, John works with teams and individuals across EuroNorth to develop the company’s strategic approach to its business operations, shaping the commercial landscape of the future to provide a foundation for business development, driving growth, expanding market penetration and diversification on. John also provides a similar service to Dassault Systèmes business operations in India and Australia.
A former Major General in the British Army, John retired in 1999 as Commander UK Field Army. Since then he has followed a Board-level business career in the construction, infrastructure and IT sectors; this included four years as the Head of Corporate Affairs, Marketing and Communications for the Lend Lease European construction business, three years as the Managing Director of British Telecom’s National Government division and 14 years as the chairman of an international construction/services joint venture company. He currently chairs the Defence Medical Welfare Services charity, and is the construction strategy adviser to the Board of the Lean Construction Institute of Australasia.
About Dassault Systèmes
Dassault Systèmes, the 3DEXPERIENCE Company, provides business and people with virtual universes to imagine sustainable innovations. Its world-leading solutions transform the way products are designed, produced, and supported. Dassault Systèmes’ collaborative solutions foster social innovation, expanding possibilities for the virtual world to improve the real world. The group brings value to over 220,000 customers of all sizes, in all industries, in more than 140 countries. For more information, visit www.3ds.com.