How to increase the uptake of digital tools in AEC: The road to a digital built Britain

While we weren’t able to attend this year, we wanted to provide our reflections on UK Construction Week. The theme for 2020 was “Roadmap to Recovery”. It featured workshops and seminars on how the AEC industry can continue to recover from the pandemic, as well as a look at how to adapt to the new normal.

In this blog series, we take a look at the most important takeaways from the industry and it’s top thought-leaders.

Digital innovation was a hot topic and UK Construction Week and, if we are to transform the way the UK designs, builds, operates and integrates its infrastructure, we must build a modern industrial strategy with digital at its heart. This strategy will deliver reductions in whole-life costs and carbon emissions, while improving productivity by using intelligent building information models, sensing technology and secure data.

For technology uptake to be truly viable, you need a client, contractor and design team who are willing to ‘give it a go’ and trial new solutions on different projects. If a solution provides clear added benefits then it can embed itself into working practice. However, the mindset towards taking risk in construction is largely conservative. While this means that the UK has cost-conscious contractors who deliver excellent infrastructure at value, it’s resulted in an industry constantly under pressure to seek a margin. According to the CFMA, pre-tax net profit for general contractors is between 1.4 and 2.4%.

​The motivations for minimising risk are valid, but it does have the effect of working to hold back innovation and efficiency. If the industry begins to be more open to trying new ideas and new methods, the effects will further influence progress in delivering projects more efficiently and effectively, while boosting productivity.

It’s clear that technology alone won’t deliver the change that we need. Change comes when we use digital ways of working to help consistently deliver improvements in productivity, quality and safety. In order to have innovation at the heart of industry workflows, we must concentrate on connecting new digital concepts with business objectives. The impact of adopting any new technology needs to be forecasted and communicated in a very simple way in order to show a clear, proven financial impact on cost or profit. Only then will it qualify for any type of investment from senior executives.

Here are 3 steps we can take to increase the uptake of digital tools and concepts in AEC:

1. Unlock real value in data

Data and its effective collection, visualisation, communication and management is central to digital transformation. In the construction industry, big data refers to the huge quantities of information that have been stored in the past and that continues to be acquired today. Huge amounts of resources and work go into major construction projects which means that huge volumes of data are generated.

The idea behind harnessing different data is to build more context in order to make better decisions. This means not only accessing significantly more data, but properly analysing it to draw practical AEC project conclusions. For data to actually be valuable, it needs to provide answers to one of the following:

  • Is the project viable and performing as expected?
  • Do we stop the project because we aren’t going to make a profit?
  • Can we see where additional effort is required because we are behind schedule?
  • Do we inform the client that the project is behind schedule?

An obstacle in construction is that much of the data collected is siloed – held in isolation by the business or division which collected it. Unfortunately, many stakeholders view data as something that is proprietary which shouldn’t be shared with one another.

A solution to this is the use of visualisation platforms or “digital twins”. In construction, digital twins allow teams to work with a visual and intuitive 3D representation of a project. The latest visualisation platforms are packed with features and are capable of tracking and measuring complex project performance from any internet-connected device.

For example, in Sensat’s visualisation platform it’s possible to get access to all above and below ground data and information, including:

  • Geospatial and topographic site information
  • Integration of buried services and below-ground utilities
  • Masterplan models and BIM integration of all associated commercial
  • Residential structures, and all engineering design information for the associated infrastructure

This gives you a Single Source of Truth (SSOT) of your development site or project, so all stakeholders are working on the most up-to-date information to create a holistic project overview that can be shared across teams.

2. Increase funding for the testing and research of new methods

The construction sector as a whole must do more to increase funds for testing and research of new methods outside of active projects. Encouraging space for research and development and testing of methods allows for innovations to be proven. The result of which would remove some of the risk concerns about projects failing due to new and not well-understood techniques.

Innovation can bring value in many ways, and organisations who have embraced it report a variety of benefits in reduced costs, a more productive workforce, and safer work environments. These benefits also extend to employee job satisfaction, improved reputation and the ability to win work.

3. Upskill talent

There are core skills that are needed to collect, store and use data in order to strategically solve problems. In a digitally laggard industry like construction, not everyone is data confident. It’s clear that we need to raise digital skills across the board, but not everyone needs to be at the same level. It’s about enabling top-down and bottom-up change.

Some people love learning how to use new technology. Others resent the change to what they consider tried and tested processes – a workflow they can do with their eyes closed. In construction, this mindset is very common. For the new technology to be successful, employees need to be won over to immediate benefits. Ideally, you can demonstrate benefits and get them excited about the savings of time and cost.

Every piece of new software or technology adopted by a company is going to require training to optimise usage from employees. Training is an expense, and it is an area where some businesses neglect after getting excited about the initial implementation of technology.

Covid-19 and social distancing has had an effect on both the construction sector and the UK as a whole. For the first time in infrastructure, restrictions were put in place for onsite management to reduce human contact and many project workers, construction and design engineers were forced to work remotely and from home. Because of this, there has been a huge increase in the use of technology and software that allows individuals and teams to communicate and collaborate remotely. Without the latest digital technology in data management, tracking, visualisation and collaboration.

Want to know more? Sensat’s highly anticipated insight paper addresses the importance of digital and contextual data in more informed, sustainable decision making, and how it will influence the future of construction in a post-COVID world.


This blog was largely inspired by a virtual seminar during UK Construction Week 2020:

Alexandra Bolton, Executive Director, CDBB

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