Digitalisation in the Construction Industry

Digitalisation in the construction industry infographic

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it would’ve been built a hell of a lot quicker if Augustus Caesar had drones.

The idea of “working smarter, not harder” feels like it’s been in the works for centuries, and it’s still gaining momentum, sometimes in ways we don’t even notice.

For example, let’s say you build houses for a living, spending countless hours laying bricks and wearing yourself out every day. Now imagine a world in which, instead of pushing yourself to the brink of physical exhaustion to build each house on time, you have a robot that lays the bricks for you. This robot – let’s call him Pete – would get the job done efficiently whilst you think about the next steps in the project and what cool decals you’re going to add to Pete.

Although this fantasy might not be so far-fetched these days, thousands of contractors still feel more confident using a pen and paper than a laptop for any sort of planning.

But not every example of digitalisation is quite as literal as bricklaying drones. In every area from pre-construction planning to on-site productivity management, it’s the natural direction that the construction industry is moving in, Companies around the world are racing to find out which new technology will truly save them time or cut down their costs. But how much difference does it all make?

Demand for construction is (almost) always growing

Despite the occasional dip (or global pandemic), demand for construction output generally continues to rise as time goes on. According to Global Construction, by 2030 this output is expected to increase by an enormous 85% due to population growth, urbanisation, and economic expansion. With construction only likely to continue to boom, it’s safe to assume that only those who adapt will thrive. 3D scanners, sensors, and even drones are already part of some modern-day builders’ tool kits, but adopting new technology still isn’t at the top of everyone’s to-do list.

According to a report published by the World Built Environment Forum in 2020, 72% of construction specialists claimed that “digital transformation is a priority”, yet almost a third of them said they spend less than 3% of their total turnover on anything digital. From these numbers, it’s clear that most companies have at least a rough idea of what the future of the industry looks like, but the lack of investment suggests they’re not totally convinced about the immediate results.

The same report also notes that 24% of contractors surveyed have “identified the need for DX (digital transformation) but have yet to move their digitalisation projects beyond conception stage” with 52% admitting they have “reached an impasse in their DX journey and see little immediate prospect of advancing to the next stage.”

Evidently, a lot of the construction world doesn’t yet want to take the leap, perhaps for a variety of reasons, but the two most prominent factors for change are undoubtedly time and money. Understandably, taking your business from pen and paper to keyboard and mouse sounds like a lot of work, the assumption being that this change will take up precious time and cost a pretty penny.

But like any serious gym-goer would tell you: no pain, no gain.

Like any investment, you have to spend money to make money, and when it comes to digitalising your business, the return can be well worth the effort (and visible sooner than you think).

The real-life impact of going virtual

Reinventing Construction: A route to higher productivity, a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, highlights how businesses have, by modernising their crucial practices, aided both productivity and profitability. The report estimates that “if construction companies invest in digitisation while also continuing to embrace new materials and advanced automation, they could see a 50-60 percent increase in their overall productivity.”

MGI also states that “making a digital transformation alone can result in cost reductions in the range of 4 to 6 percent.” US-based Archer Mechanical are specialists in sustainable mechanical and plumbing systems who achieved six-digit savings annually through “a mobile workforce app […] with facial recognition to identify employees” to speed up their on-site data collection processes.

If you think about it, it makes complete sense. Imagine a business that is still heavily reliant on paper, printing endless reports, technical drawings, quotes, and whatever else they might need on a regular basis. With a little investment (mostly just rethinking their processes), they could swap out a lot of those pieces of paper for digital equivalents.

Alongside saving countless hours by no longer having to wade through piles of documents, phasing out paper-based processes will save the business money in the long run in efficiency alone, let alone the actual printing costs. Construction drawings are a classic example, especially when you swap the highlighters and scale rule for on-screen take-off software.

Interestingly a recent survey of our own tells a similar story when it comes to digital transformation. 97% of Ensign users reported spending less time estimating, while 95% said they’ve noticed higher profitability since switching to our estimating software. Many spent hours – both on and off the job – manually carrying out take-offs and estimates before taking the leap to go digital.

Software has enabled these estimators to significantly increase the number of profitable jobs they can work on at any given time, while also improving the accuracy of each quote (according to 96% of users) and helping to increase their win rate overall (for 93%).

Bring on the robot revolution

The future of construction is undoubtedly digital. Technology is enabling fundamental processes to become streamlined and more effective. Both on and off-site, software and hardware are enabling businesses to evolve how they operate, resulting in more profitable output. On a wider scale, the construction industry of tomorrow will be a better-performing, more stable sector that delivers on time and on budget in more cases.

Over the next five to ten years, we predict this transformation will take place at an increasing pace. In fact, that’s already evident from what’s happening now. But that doesn’t mean we should sit back and wait patiently to welcome the robots.

If businesses want to benefit from the digital revolution, they should prioritise a transformation of their own. Keeping an eye on the latest technological breakthroughs can help contractors stay ahead of the curve, but it’s important they look at their own businesses and try to actively redesign the most vulnerable (or outdated) processes. Automating the way they work will have substantial and competitive benefits, so why wait?

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