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Embracing Digital Tools: The Key to a Competitive Edge in the Evolving Construction Industry

Construction is experiencing tremendous demand, yet far too many construction firms are at a disadvantage by holding out on technology adoption.

By Steve Smith, Bluebeam 

The construction sector is rife with activity. Spending for commercial, institutional and industrial buildings surged nearly 20 percent in 2023, despite initial industry uncertainty and recession fears for much of the year amid rising interest rates and still-high inflation.  

And while leading economists expect construction spending to come back down to earth in 2024, the industry appears poised for another busy year, as public spending from the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act continue to break ground on fresh projects. 

What’s more, pent-up demand for private investment in manufacturing, medical, hospitality, single- and multi-family housing and even commercial offices promises to deliver builders plenty of opportunity in the years to come.  

Despite the positive outlook, challenges remain. A skilled labor shortage persists, as do rising supply chain costs. And as any contractor knows, failures in construction don’t always come from lack of work but rather the ability to effectively complete projects on time and within budget. 

All of these challenges come as the industry also grapples with ways to become more environmentally sustainable—an effort that requires considerable time, money, and uncomfortable change.  

Taken together, today’s builders are being held to an extremely high standard. Each challenge the industry faces requires dramatic improvements in efficiency at all levels of a project. Yet far too many construction firms still rely on outdated processes and workflows, namely the use of paper. 

Given the current industry landscape, this is a huge risk. While digital construction tools have indeed proliferated for some time, the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged the industry’s growth. 

An estimated $50 billion was invested in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) technology between 2020 and 2022, according to a report by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. That’s a staggering 85 percent higher than the three years prior to the pandemic. 

Digital tools built specifically for the construction industry aren’t just nice to have. They’ve become essential, providing contractors with a competitive advantage over those that remain on the sidelines. 

Moreover, thanks to accelerating advances in technology overall, it’s never been easier for firms of all sizes and means to invest in these digital tools, which are proven to streamline and automate several critical construction workflows, resulting in greater efficiencies and, ultimately, profits.   

Boosting Profitability

The three main barriers to productive profitability in the construction industry are time management, supply chain management and error reduction. Today’s digital tools help firms tremendously in each of these areas. 

Time Management: Digital tools that speed up the flow of crucial project information regardless of a stakeholder’s location can drastically reduce time-intensive tasks. This is particularly the case with project document reviews, where traditionally physical paper copies needed to travel to several locations. Now reviews can happen digitally in real-time. 

Supply Chain Management: Being able to estimate material amounts is essential to project profitability. And with today’s digital tools, estimating is faster and more precise than ever. This goes a long way toward helping construction firms manage supplies properly while reducing waste. 

Error Reduction: Digitizing plan review markups and comments ensures clean and clear legibility. Additionally, the detailed review logs these tools provide makes work approvals crystal clear. Together, these can drastically cut down on project errors, which lead to costly re-work and drawn-out timelines. 

Ensuring Regulatory Compliance

As the construction industry strives to be more environmentally sustainable, building regulations in this area are only going to become more stringent. With digital tools, builders can more closely track critical regulatory data points for each project, in turn improving their overall regulatory compliance. 

It’s not just builders who stand to benefit. Digital construction tools can help building owners as well, especially as more regulatory bodies across the globe adopt regulations that either accommodate or mandate digital delivery. 

Preparing For the Future 

The evolution of technology is a runaway train. In the past year alone, advances in artificial intelligence and other nascent technologies have continued at a breakneck pace. That’s on top of things like Digital Twin, which has come a long way fast in the construction industry. 

While these advances have yet to go mainstream, adopting them when they do will be easier for companies already using other digital tools for essential workflows. 

Finally, embracing digital tools doesn’t have to be difficult. Thanks to a crowded and competitive marketplace for construction technology, testing and adopting these new tools can happen without much financial commitment. Once a contractor does decide to adopt a tool, implementation and training is accessible and intuitive. 

Here are a few ways to start your digital journey: 

Assess Digital Gaps: Audit current processes and workflows. Identify ones that could be streamlined with technology. 

Gather Feedback: Develop a way to gain feedback from key people on where technology could help essential processes. A simple survey will suffice. 

Implement One Improvement: Based on that feedback, test a digital tool to improve one of those processes. Go slow; keep it simple. Track progress every so often. Repeat with other workflows as the tool becomes more ingrained in the company. 

A New Way Forward

It’s a fascinating time to be in the construction industry. Societal shifts and accelerating changes to the ways people live and work will require a reimagining in the way our world is built. Contractors that have fully embraced the industry’s plethora of evolving digital tools will undoubtedly hold a competitive edge in this world. 

Steve W. Smith serves as Director of Partnerships at Bluebeam, a provider of construction software for innovators. Architects, engineers and builders use Bluebeam software to finish projects faster, reduce risk, and maximize ROI. Steve is a long-time construction technology enthusiast. His areas of focus are partnerships, product management, construction hardware and software workflows, reality capture, business development, sales and marketing. He began his career in construction directly after high school as a laborer for a general contractor in New Hampshire, and has also held manager and executive roles at Leica Geosystems and Hilti. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in German Studies from BYU and an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. He resides in the greater Atlanta, Georgia area.