By AJ Waters
If your business is looking for an innovative, new solution to a technology problem, your first thought might be to start knocking on doors in Silicon Valley. After all, that crowded stretch of highway between San Francisco and San Jose is a hotbed of revolutionary tech advancements and home to some of the most valuable companies in the world. However, if your challenge relates to engineering, construction, or capital project management, you might just be wasting your time.
Make no mistake, the time is absolutely right for construction to take the next step in tech. Just look at the way their workforce, like any industry, is evolving. Experienced workers are retiring faster than new ones can graduate, and these new recruits are digital natives that grew up in the internet age. They have higher expectations about access to technology in the workplace than any previous generation, but also a greater need for fast historical knowledge transfer to support their growth. So while construction has no choice as an industry but to find new ways of working, it needs to be smart about relying on the experience that got it here to truly find new ways to boost productivity, increase efficiency and ensure successful project delivery.
Since the dawn of the computer age, most economic sectors have seen exponential productivity growth, and according to many we are in the dawn of a fourth industrial revolution every bit as transformative as those that came before.
But one major sector has not shared in the productivity spoils. Construction has been holding relatively steady, if not falling, since the 1960s, in the digital revolution. Too many tasks on a project site simply must be done by a human being; there is no production line to automate setting structural steel, for example.
The Silicon Valley mindset of a perfectly-designed tech solution disrupting entire industries has been on a roll for decades. Surely they see the trillion-dollar construction sector and its slowness to adopt modern tech platforms as a tempting prize. There is an art to understanding construction that can only come from getting your boots dirty.
For starters, construction is stubbornly physical. Many of the most successful tech businesses have thrived precisely because they have replaced physical processes with digital ones as much as possible. Amazon, for example, sidestepped the bookstore, and then all the other stores, making the hassle of chasing something down in brick and mortar retail an afterthought and forcing others to rethink their entire business models. This is simply not an option in construction. At the end of the day, whether your project is in infrastructure, mining, energy, public sector or commercial, you actually have to design, get on-site to build and finally deliver a physical product.
Real is messier than digital
While bright minds create bright ideas, the real world does not always play nice. Silicon Valley sets some of the world’s brightest minds on solving a problem. However, a solution designed in an office – despite being theoretically flawless – does not always translate to the construction site. Even something as seemingly simple as good Wi-Fi or a strong cell signal cannot be taken for granted.
Consider for a moment, that you gave a construction worker a digital work plan on a tablet and sent them out on-site. Did you give them the ability to download that plan locally on the device if they drop connectivity? That requires building a dedicated app for the tablet instead of just using a browser page. What about the fact they are probably wearing heavy work gloves while out there? Does the software take into account interacting with a tablet in such a way? A simple answer might be a feature like voice-operation technology as a promising way around this. Yet, if you consider the noisy reality of the construction site and how masks, air filters and other personal protective equipment can limit communication, there are some major hurdles to overcome before this tech can be adapted to construction.
Another buzzword in technology is augmented reality – giving workers some sort of heads-up display of instructions to follow using a visor or goggles. On the software front the concept is brilliant. Imagine a worker being live-streamed project data and work plans, connecting instantly with the most up-to-date information simply based on where they look, all hands-free. However, that worker will probably be wearing safety goggles, ear plugs and a hard hat for much of the day. If the AR apparatus does not fit comfortably in, under or around all that PPE, the idea is another nonstarter.
Accounting for experience
Talk to any construction industry veteran and they will be happy to tell you they have seen it all, and likely they have. During my time in the field I have been inside a solid concrete bridge five stories above the middle of the San Francisco Bay and also working on a bid to support teams that are miles below the surface for a research project. In either case, connectivity, power, and lighting are at a premium while the focus on your surroundings is at an all-time high. These are the sorts of experiences that only come from first-hand knowledge, and even the brightest tech minds will struggle to anticipate this kind of environment unless they have walked a mile in the steel-toed boots of the job site. Engineering and construction is quite simply a master’s course in real-world problem solving, and that takes years to accumulate and fine tune.
Because of this, construction project management becomes more of an art than a science, leaving experience the key difference maker in successful construction project outcomes. Take estimating for example. In theory, it is simply a matter of aligning cost data to a set of drawings and ripe for a tech-based, automatic approach. In practice, though, it is something that is learned over time. To become a skilled estimator, you first must get some things wrong, cost your boss some money, and learn from these mistakes to truly understand how to leverage history and adjust historical values to the new scope. Scheduling is similar, in that you must understand sequencing. It may sound obvious to say you cannot hang a pipe on a rack that has not yet been put in place or drop in a beam before the supporting column. But what about knowing when to purchase the steel in the first place? Structural steel often has a long lead time on a project; it is not something you can just run to a hardware store and grab. To someone with construction experience these considerations come naturally, but these kinds of insights are harder to come by for an outsider.
Finally, aside from the experience differential, there is also a cultural gap between Silicon Valley and the construction site. A tranquil tech campus with ping pong tables, meditation nooks and free food is a long way from the hustle and bustle of a chaotic and occasionally dangerous construction environment. And the widely-adopted Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” does not apply when the safety of your employees and the quality of the finished product are your primary concerns.
Tech and construction diverge not only in the environment, but in the way they go about business as well. First, construction is extremely focused and outcome orientated. Talk to a construction manager about possibilities of artificial intelligence and you will lose them quickly – tell them how predictive analytics deliver insights that can pre-empt their problems and they will perk up. The tech world is more exploratory, full of minds excited about the infinite possibilities of the tech first, and then working to figure out an application for it second (think TV screens on a refrigerator). Like the old saying goes, when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail, but for construction it is all about starting with the right tools for the job.
Second, because of the need to create something fast or apply the next idea to the first problem they see, many tech solutions end up creating silos, where a holistic approach is needed. For example, look at time keeping software. There are many solutions out there, all perfectly designed to do that one job. But in construction, timesheets are not just about payroll; quantities are another key ingredient. Not only that, but the data collected goes to the business manager to calculate earned value, to the safety manager to analyze recordable metrics, to quality control to match with rework codes, etc. Again, it comes down to experience and intimate familiarity with the interconnected nature of construction to draw out the correct solution.
The Future is Here
Maybe we tend to shy away from the phrase “digital transformation” but make no mistake – the future of the engineering and construction industry is here, even if it is not evenly adopted. While we can agree that a modern technology approach to outdated processes can accelerate all aspects of an engineering, procurement, and construction business, from design through delivery, very few solutions on the market today are infused with the field-tested DNA of on-site experience, and even fewer have the ability to build the interconnected solutions the industry needs. In an industry where business survival hangs in the balance between extremely thin margins and tight deadlines, being able to trust your technology partner with the future of your business is priceless. Look past the glimmer of Silicon Valley for a technology partner that has been where you have been – and has the dirt on their boots to prove it.
AJ Waters is vice president of industry solutions, InEight.