Australia, Features, Technology

Constructing innovation in the wake of the pandemic: An industry Q&A

The construction sector is poised for a boom. Yet, while the pipeline for infrastructure projects continues to grow there is an increasing expectation for contractors to improve their digital engineering capabilities.

The construction sector is poised for a boom. Yet, while the pipeline for infrastructure projects continues to grow – and will remain buoyant in the wake of the pandemic – there is an increasing expectation for contractors to improve their digital engineering capabilities.

COVID-19 has proven to be a great disruptor as well as an accelerant for digital transformation in the last 18 months, particularly as the industry has scrambled to create remote workarounds to varying restrictions and lockdown periods.

In this Q&A, William Arnott asks Paul King, Director, Product Solution Engineering at Bentley Systems, what this means for the sector at large, and how contractors can gain a competitive edge by digitising their processes and workflow.

Q: In your opinion, do you think the construction sector needs to increase its digital engineering capabilities? How progressive has Australia been in this space?

A: In a word, yes! I am frequently asked how Australia compares with the United States and the United Kingdom. Companies also want to know how they are positioned against their competitors. It’s difficult to provide a definitive answer to those questions because examples are so different and there are so many variables that come into play such as project types, regulations, and levels of advancements. I think it is fair to say that Australia has some exceptional examples of how digital technology is being used on major infrastructure projects. Melbourne’s Level Crossing Removal Project is an example. The Western Sydney City Deal is another. It’s also important to mention that Transport for NSW has been very progressive in this space, and what they’re doing with their digital engineering programme is world leading.

Having said that, Bentley, together with Dodge Data and Analytics, released a report in June 2021 about the uptake of digital technology on construction projects in the U.S. The report revealed that just over a third of civil contractors were using model-based technology for their projects. That’s quite revealing I think, and whilst not reflective of the entire global industry, it does give an indication as to where the sector is currently positioned. Importantly, it shows the opportunity available as civil contractors start to bid on this pipeline of infrastructure work coming in the wake of COVID-19. If you’re working in the sector – whether you’re a tier one company or a subcontractor – there’s a lot of opportunity to start applying some of the technology that’s out there to improve what you do.

Q: How much impact has the pandemic had on digital uptake? 

A: It’s certainly accelerated digitalisation. If you look at remote working as an example, we’ve had the technologies, such as video call applications, to support remote work for some time. But COVID-19 gave us no choice but to use them. Prior to the pandemic there was always a long list of reasons not to use them, but that’s all changed, and people have become used to working remotely. The pandemic has transformed their opinion and relationship with digital technology, which I think is a positive. We’ve certainly seen better communication and use of digital tools between people that are on-site and off-site. For example, a project manager may work effectively from a remote location and receive photos or live video feeds from an on-site engineer. Or in more advanced cases, reality modelling is used. A drone can create a virtual 3D representation of a site, and the project team working from home can view the site on their respective device. There’s been some clever technology adoption since the pandemic, and I think certain parts of the industry have adapted quite well to using it and will continue to do so.

Q: Considering the current landscape – in terms of what projects are in the pipeline but also the impacts of the pandemic – what advice do you have for those in the industry? How can companies stay competitive?

A: I have two bits of advice about staying competitive. The first one is to get started. Don’t wait for a mandate from the government or a client to start implementing digital tools. The second is to look at what your business needs are and pick a few areas where you can adopt digital tools and see the benefits from that adoption quickly. A lot of companies are concerned with what their competitors are doing. Don’t get blinkered by that – every organisation is different.

It’s important to note that when it comes to digitalisation, you don’t need to throw a lot of money into the technology at once. In fact, some of the best examples of implementing digital technology that I’ve seen is with small firms who have a limited budget to try something. So, they plan it properly and focus on a specific area. That type of approach will usually prove successful.

It’s about understanding what your business needs are and getting started. Then it’s equally important that once you’ve started, you don’t stop. Digitalisation must become business as usual, or you’ll be left behind. That means keeping abreast of what’s happening in the market and what technology is coming out. You’ve also got to constantly look at your own processes and develop your own case studies to determine what’s working and what’s not working, then adjust. That’s what being innovative is about, and in the wake of the pandemic, that’s what contractors need to be doing if they are to remain competitive.

Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that the current landscape is intrinsically connected to the impacts of COVID-19. The industry may spend money on new software or on a digital engineering manager but unless everything is underpinned by a business plan, they won’t see real improvements, which won’t bode well in the longer term.

Q: Can you provide some positive examples of innovation in the sector that might inspire readers?

A: Absolutely. There are actually several examples out there, but I’m going to break it down into three areas based on what I’m seeing from big construction projects happening in Australia at the moment. These are 4D planning and execution, reality modelling and the construction digital twin.

  1. 4D planning and execution

4D is one of the easiest and most effective ways to implement some digital technology and best practices. It will also give you some quick wins. The reason for this is that it is based on existing 3D information and BIM data. So, if you’re a contractor, you would take your designer’s models and design information and then link that to the schedule you’ve developed with your planning team. You will get quick benefits from that, even in the bidding stage before you start to build. You can build your infrastructure virtually first to see if it works, or if you have clashes, or if it could be built more effectively. Then you can iron out any issues before you get to site. Optimising the path of construction before you get to site will save you on time and problems or risks on-site. We find that in a lot of cases people tend to report a 10 to 15 per cent shorter construction duration when using a 4D process. That might not sound like a lot, but if you’re talking about the costs of being on-site for a week, that adds up to significant amounts. I can think of an example in the UK where being on-site was costing them half a million pounds a week. By cutting the construction duration and shaving off even just a few weeks, that’s a substantial cost saving, and one that certainly dwarfs the ROI, particularly if you’ve spent just a few thousand dollars on software or on implementing digital technology better.

Also, if you look at benefits to rail projects specifically, such as inland rail or projects around Melbourne, it’s not necessarily about finishing quicker but finishing on time. On these types of projects, contractors will be given a specific window to fix a piece of track, and if they’re late, there will be huge penalties due to loss of train service. With 4D planning, contractors will have the confidence that they can work within these timeframes because it’s all been planned out to schedule in advance. There’s been a lot of interest with big rail and road infrastructure projects where firms are adopting this technology.

  1. Reality Modelling

Reality modelling has a lot of appeal. I suppose it’s the more glamourous of the digital technologies, as it’s still relatively novel. Reality modelling can be implemented on a small scale or large scale.

On the small scale, reality modelling is being used more and more for site inspections, particularly because of COVID-19 restrictions. For example, a site engineer on-site might inspect a pump that’s failed or a rusty pipe column. They can take photos on their phone, and by using Bentley’s ContextCapture – which includes a cloud processing service – that engineer will have a realistic CAD or 3D model on their phone within a few minutes. They can share it immediately with a project manager or another engineer offsite, and it becomes a piece of engineering data that they can continue to use.

On a large scale, and we’re seeing reality modelling more often on major road and rail projects. A tier one contractor might fly a drone-mounted camera up and down the length of the construction site daily. They’ll use that to monitor the construction work. Because they’ve created a CAD model, they can easily measure the progress each week. They might also use this same technology to identify where equipment is on the site, such as diggers or cranes.

  1. Construction digital twin

The construction digital twin combines different technology together. By definition, a digital twin is a virtual representation of an object or system that spans its life cycle, so it is not static, it is constantly being updated. However, at its simplest level, this technology is re-using information data you would have on a site anyway, whether it’s design data, drawings and models or feeds coming in from the field such as photographs, forms, or, increasingly, data from sensors. Basically, a construction digital twin uses all this data to support the operations on-site, such as automated machines. Or it can be used to provide better cost estimation and management of materials. The concept is similar to when people activate their loyalty cards at a supermarket and do their shopping. By doing this, the supermarket can better understand what their customers are buying, at what intervals and frequency. Then they can stock their inventory and plan their logistics to meet that demand. The digital twin gives construction companies the opportunity to go down to that same level of performance as the supermarket and manage the logistics of a project more efficiently. Essentially, it’s just using existing data in a smarter way, which presents opportunities to be more productive.

Q: Can we discuss Bentley’s software solution SYNCHRO and how this can help the construction industry manage projects?

A: SYNCHRO was developed from the ground up as a purpose-built construction management platform. One of the key drivers was that we wanted to help contractors win more projects, and to win more projects with better margins. Construction is highly competitive and has a lot of new entrants, which means contractors must cut costs to win work, but then have zero profits. Or perhaps they go in knowing they are working at a loss but hope they can make it up through extras and claims on changes. We saw an opportunity to help contractors win projects at margins that were sustainable.

Additionally, we wanted to help contractors deliver those projects efficiently on-site. It is crucial for SYNCHRO to support the construction digital twin and its different feeds, because that’s how we build on-site. Finally, we wanted to make sure contractors were getting paid the right amount every time they delivered different parts of their work. Contractors live and die on cash flow, so being able to report on progress accurately is vital.

In a nutshell, SYNCHRO is about those three things – winning work, delivering efficiently and improving profitability.

Also, this solution is particularly suited to civil infrastructure. Historically, software was designed to support vertical construction. Whereas SYNCHRO is very much designed to support civil infrastructure projects, and I feel a lot of civil contractors were waiting for its arrival. Importantly, it’s not just one application, it’s a portfolio of apps built with the view to support the digital twin.

Within the SYNCHRO solution are different apps to suit different aspects of a project, but they are all linked together. Whether that’s on the design front or on the delivery front, there are different modules that can be mixed and matched to suit.

On the design front, if you think of a typical workflow, a contractor will take in design information such as models and drawings. With the SYNCRHO modeller, they can turn that into constructable information, saving them a lot of time and effort in the pre-construction phase.

Then they can break that model down and create a time-based sequence. SYNCHRO 4D allows planners to link those constructable design models with the planning schedule to create the path of construction. This will also help identify issues early, and they can optimise how they build the infrastructure.

Then there is SYNCHRO Control. This is a cloud-hosted hub that serves as the project management and construction management portal. SYNCHRO Control becomes the trusted data environment where all documents, forms, drawings, and models will be stored in one secure place.

Having this central hub means that people out in the field can connect with it. Using SYNCHRO Field on their device, they can access this data portal and get the drawing or model they need. Also, as part of a digital twin workflow, someone out in the field can also use SYNCHRO Field to take photos, create a ContextCapture model and share that with the rest of the team.

With SYNCHRO it is less about the device these teams are using but instead about the whole construction workflow. How can that team best build the infrastructure? How can they create, manage and share information throughout the life cycle? Those are questions that the solution helps users address. Also, with the view of COVID-19, project managers or engineers can work remotely. As they can log in to SYNCHRO Control – which can be from any browser, anywhere – they can see the latest models and updates to drawings as well as give instructions and manage the project without having to be on-site.

Q: Can you also talk about how Bentley’s recent acquisition of E7 may benefit customers in the construction sector? What sets this project delivery solution apart?

E7 has been a great fit for Bentley. E7’s flexible daily cost capture methods will extend Bentley’s SYNCHRO construction modelling, project management and reporting, task management, voice-based field data capture, and automation capabilities to create a comprehensive 4D construction digital twin solution. The combined capabilities enable heavy civil construction contractors to effectively optimise the utilisation of field resources to stay on schedule and on budget.

Q: As a final question, how do you recommend organisations manage the skills shortage in construction?

A: The skills shortage is a complex problem, and there is no easy or quick solution. I do believe that as firms embrace digital technologies and processes, it opens up other employment opportunities and possibilities within the sector. Which in turn makes construction more appealing. The shortfall of skilled personnel can be met by focusing on a diverse workforce and getting students to become interested in engineering while still in middle school. Then, by the time they graduate college, they will be grounded in the skills they need to grow in their chosen profession.

When it comes to using drone technology and robotics, companies need to invest in knowledge programmes and upskill staff. As I said earlier, once you start to digitise, you can’t stop. The same goes with training and investment. To keep your staff, you need to keep them invested and interested. The payback is that they will then apply that technology or implement better processes that will improve your business.

To summarise, I think organisations can manage the skills shortage by putting more effort into continued learning methodology.

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