While South Africa’s construction industry has been slow to adopt new digital technologies, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted just how effective digital innovation can be in transforming various aspects of their businesses.

RIB CCS CEO, Andrew Skudder says the adoption of many digital solutions specific to the construction industry is in its infancy in South Africa and globally. “While the level of cloud adoption has increased significantly, the uptake of other technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) and integrated platforms is much slower.

“Many companies have legacy computing infrastructure in place and will only begin to transform when the cost of moving from an on-premise solution to a cloud-based solution makes most sense, that is, when their legacy solution begins to depreciate and moving to the cloud becomes financially viable.”

“Ultimately, construction companies that have committed to digital transformation will be able to integrate more effectively, enhance their business offerings, improve their capabilities and reap the greatest rewards.”

He highlights five of the most significant trends that are setting the digital frontrunners apart from their competitors.

Harnessing the power of cloud computing

Cloud computing is the process of leveraging off of large data centres with massive computing power. Here, the AWS’s and Azure’s of the world lead in this space, with many of large tech companies, such as IBM, coming on board with their own cloud platforms.

Skudder says the large cloud companies can provide construction companies with access to powerful computing at a lower cost than they are able to do themselves. “Building one’s own data centre would be a prohibitive exercise. Cloud computing allows companies to access the best possible technology in the cloud and innovate in terms of the software they generate and the data analytics they build.

“It also allows construction companies to invest in more top-end software solutions. So, a company considering investing in platform solutions like MTWO  will find that hosting the software itself will be more costly than hosting it in the cloud.”

In addition, cloud computing usually has managed services associated with it.  This means companies can outsource many of their IT functions – security management, patch management, release management and data backup – to be taken care of in a cloud computing environment.

“This releases companies of some of their IT functionality, potentially lowering costs and allowing them to focus on their core business, which in our industry is the construction of buildings and infrastructure,” notes Skudder.

Mobile technology for easy access to information

Mobile technology is important for the construction industry as it enables anybody with a mobile device to access information from wherever they are. This is especially helpful on construction sites as it allows site-based users to access information from the company’s software solutions and systems.

Skudder says one example relates to the issuing of drawings. “Instead of printing out a drawing at head office and sending it to site, they can be managed through a document management system or a BIM solution, allowing site-based employees to access the latest version of the drawing on their tablets or other mobile device at any time.”

Building better projects with BIM

Enabling 5D BIM is at the heart of the RIB Group’s core strategy. It is the combination of 3D BIM (a digital 3D model built during the design phase of the project, 4D (the time it will take to complete all aspects of the project), and 5D (the costs related to the project).

Skudder says by combining as much design, estimation and planning information as possible during the pre-construction phase, owners, developers and construction companies can achieve optimal design and build programmes for particular assets.

“The idea is to remove a significant amount of uncertainty around each project by building a digital twin. This allows construction companies to run various simulations before moving onto site and then build as closely to the design as possible,” he adds.

One of the greatest delays to projects, which also drives costs up, is change in the design or scope. “While some change on a project is inevitable, BIM allows users to articulate the impact of the change on their schedules and costing structures, providing them with the information they need to make informed and meaningful decisions,” explains Skudder.

He says the end game is the ability to handover the as-built BIM model to the client and the operator of the asset. “It should be a seamless handover of all the digital information, from the build phase into the operation phase of a project. The holy grail is to integrate everything – from design, through build and into the operation phase of one model – so that you seamlessly carry all information through the lifecycle of the project.”

Simulating the real world

“Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) – or what we refer to as Mixed Reality – allow digital technology to simulate the real world or overlay a simulation of the real-world in a real-world context,” says Skudder.

He uses the example of HoloLens (mixed reality smart glasses), which allow users to look at a BIM model or the design of building – when they’re actually in the building – by bringing up the drawing of the building and superimposing it on the construction element to see what needs to be done, or whether everything has been done correctly.

“They can also be used for safety training. If on-site employees need to use a piece of equipment, HoloLens technology can call up the operating instructions of the equipment and teach users how to operate it safely.”

During the more recent stringent Covid-19 lockdown measures, some construction companies used the devices to plan their workplaces and conduct walk-throughs to ensure social distancing was being adhered to.

Making the most of data analytics and AI

While construction software often incorporates chat bots and voice assistants aimed at site-based employees, the real benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) are realised when deep learning and machine learning come into play.

“Organisations that use cloud computing are best positioned to benefit from AI and data analytics. They are better able to make predictions and recommendations on construction plans and come up with start and end dates for various activities. And, if there is good AI in the background, they will be alerted when there is a potential clash with other activities,” notes Skudder.

The most critical aspect of leveraging AI and data analytics is to have historical information. “Our industry is notoriously bad at saving information after completing a project.  We also don’t refer to the information we do have to inform future projects, largely because it exists in an unstructured way in physical documents or on Excel spreadsheets.”

Key to solving this is integrated platform technology, which enables construction companies to keep all historical data to inform projects going forward. “As companies start building their databases, they are able to do more predictive analytics and use the power of AI,” adds Skudder.

Bringing it all together

Building on all of the previous points, Skudder says integrated platforms bring all of the digital technologies together to provide a more seamless construction process. “An integrated construction platform that is hosted in the cloud will leverage off the computing power of the cloud while integrating BIM, AI, mobile technology and other digital technologies.

“At RIB CCS, we are the advocates of the integrated platform way of working. It has numerous benefits, provides solutions to various industry challenges and makes so much sense. We predict that a time will come when construction companies will look back and wonder what took them so long to start operating in this way.”

He says while the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital tools in the industry, these relate largely to communications tools. “These tools have raised the game in terms of collaboration and the industry is reaping the benefits of these innovations. However, when they begin to adopt tools that help them manage their entire business in a collaborative way, they will experience true and liberating transformation in all areas of their operations.”

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