Technology adoption: Keep the tail from wagging the dog
Written by GREG PITCHER
The fear of falling behind competitors can make the latest technology all the more tempting to adopt. But whether you’re using VR for safety training or offsite manufacturing to drive efficiencies, the key to success is working out what are the real solutions to genuine problems
When two directors at Shard subcontractor GKR Scaffolding met with a virtual-reality developer, they came back to the office bubbling with the possibilities.
“They had seen all this Hollywood-style work, and had an amazing morning where they had been flying and all sorts,” recalls the scaffolding firm’s business strategy director, Helen Gawor. “They were very excited saying ‘We could do this and this,’ and I just had to say ‘No.’
“It would have given scaffolders a fun morning, but it would not have influenced the things we wanted to.”
Ms Gawor, a former digital and data consultant, joined the company in 2017 with a brief to improve construction processes by harnessing the power of the technology sector. She quickly learned that her job was as much about turning bad ideas away as bringing good ideas forward.
“I spent a lot of time speaking to group director Lee Rowswell about what other people in the industry were doing and whether we had a genuine application for it,” she says of her early days at GKR. “In a lot of discussions we had, the ideas seemed like vanity projects. I have seen a lot of companies – in this industry and others – where the technology is just there to show off.”
A more meaningful application for VR arose when Ms Gawor noticed a parallel between scaffolding risks and behaviours she had seen in her former role as a cyber-security consultant, where firms tended to take digital security much more seriously if they had previously been a victim.
“The lightbulb moment was when I spoke to our health and safety director,” she says. “He recounted being called to site when a labourer had taken a shortcut with some materials over some corrugated decking, fallen forward, and dropped a scaffold tube down a void onto a mobile elevating work platform, whose driver had just got out to have a cigarette. The labourer was shaken and kept telling the director he would never do it again.”
Shielded from shocks
Realising the value of personal experience in creating safe behaviours, Ms Gawor knew that VR could instil similar lessons.
The potential was particularly acute, she believed, given that increased site safety has had the side-effect of reducing the opportunity to learn from mistakes. In other words, a widespread safety culture might actually increase certain risks, by eradicating the shocking outcomes that force people to take safety to heart.
“When we spoke to senior scaffolders, they had all seen something that had made them stop and decide never to make the same mistake,” she says. “However, now our sites are relatively safe, it is unlikely people coming into the industry will see anything catastrophic. The hypothesis is that they then take more shortcuts and become complacent.”
GKR decided to use VR for safety training that would give site workers a shock without putting them in danger. “We realised we could use virtual reality to simulate situations we couldn’t create in real life,” Ms Gawor says.
The firm worked in partnership with Coventry-based VR Learning Studio to design realistic virtual scenarios, with details down to visibly worn scaffolding and sound taken from live sites.
“Operatives are put in an environment in real time, trying to intercept six scenarios that play out in front of them,” says Ms Gawor. “For example, they see a colleague climbing an unsecured ladder, and if they don’t react in time, they see him fall off and get hit by a car.
“They hear the sirens and the phone call to the other half. It’s quite atmospheric.”
Early data suggests an increase in workers reporting near misses after taking the training, as well as saying they feel more likely to act on safety concerns.
The project earned GKR a shortlisting for Best Use of Technology at the 2019 CN Awards.
Business case comes first
With technology developing rapidly in many sectors, and construction lagging behind in tech adoption, the temptation may be to grab at flashy technologies in the hope that they might deliver some sort of business advantage. What GKR’s experience highlights is that technology should only be adopted if it offers a real solution to a genuine problem.
“The lessons are the importance of having a business case for technology and finding the right partner who understands your world,” notes Ms Gawor.
Another case of technology adoption driven by clear requirements can be found at Osborne, which pipped GKR to win the technology category at the CN Awards with its cloud-based payment-management system.
“A number of key challenges and risks were identified within the industry, and within our business, that needed to be addressed,” says Osborne group finance director Stuart Hammond.
These included lack of transparency for the supply chain on forthcoming payments; inconsistent processes for dealing with applications; and a time-consuming system for VAT receipts. On top of these process issues came legal requirements including compliance with the Construction Act and the duty to report payment practices and performance.
Osborne is attempting to overcome these challenges by rolling out the WebContractor application from Open ECX across its business.
“The benefits in time, cost savings and efficiencies are significant, and we expect these to continue to improve as the software is developed with new functionality,” says Mr Hammond.
“Our relationships with our supply chain in a number of cases have improved, as there is transparency throughout the entire application-for-payment process,” he adds.
“The system is easy to use and provides them with the relevant data required to help them manage their business.”
An industry ripe for change
Richard Crosby, director of modular building contractor Blacc, describes the biggest business driver of all for technology adoption: the likelihood that disruptive new entrants might render today’s industry giants obsolete.
This is a pattern that has been repeated in other markets, where initially small and agile internet-based upstarts have grown rapidly, eventually wresting the bulk of business away from familiar incumbents.
Mr Crosby says the way buildings are delivered today is ripe for a major shift of this type, though he adds that the volumetric market – where large modules are made in a factory and transported to the site for assembly – is not yet mature enough to deliver truly compelling advantages.
“The traditional construction industry is like the old shipping industry, where people used to handball everything from a lorry to a ship and back off again on the other side,” he says.
“The current volumetric market is like when the first bright spark took the back of his lorry off and stuck that on the boat. But every lorry is still a different size. We are aiming to create the [equivalent of the] shipping container, which made everything standardised and more efficient.”
In a bid to lead this transformation, aided by Innovate UK governmental funding, Blacc has helped create Seismic, a steel-frame system based on standardised components that fit together to make a building’s structure.
“Major contractors don’t want to change [their practices] because they can’t change fast enough, but they’ll have to do so before someone with money comes along and decimates the industry – as has happened in retail,” Mr Crosby says.
Printing plaster onto walls
This is a view supported by academics such as Gerard Wood and Angela Lee from the University of Salford’s School of the Built Environment. In an article published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors earlier this year, the pair argued that volumetric construction has the potential to create “colossal wins in time, waste reduction and quality control” if fully embraced.
To explain the modular approach, Mr Crosby cites the example of a computer printer, for which fitting the exterior casing is the last rather than the first step of assembly, easing the task of building the complex mechanisms inside.
“If you flew in from a different planet to create a building, which is ultimately a product, you wouldn’t put all the cladding around it first then do the internal fit-out afterward,” he says.
Mr Crosby notes, for example, that plasterboard is currently manufactured as a continuous sheet material but is cut into small sections, suitable for a person to manhandle up a staircase, and then laboriously joined back together on-site to create walls.
“Why would you do that when you could print it off and put it straight onto [structural] walls in a factory?” he asks.
Mr Crosby insists that the realisation of the need to remove such inefficiencies will drive change, with traditional operators coming under pressure to adapt or face being undercut by new competitors.
Opening the floodgates
The long-term plan is to aggregate demand for buildings across different locations and sectors and create easy-to-manufacture solutions with less material and time required for assembly.
“Manufacturing is about using as few parts as possible and all working together, designing for assembly,” he says.
Mr Crosby predicts that a building revolution will take hold as soon as clients wake up to the embedded costs of the current approach. Once new business models become evident, the floodgates will open, he believes.
“You would not procure an aeroplane on the basis of who you knew down the pub. Who can provide a wing as cheaply as possible? Who will take the risk? And what happens if someone goes bust?” he says.
“You work as a team [of dedicated specialists]. There are fewer, more specialised players in the market and the profit margins are higher.
“As regulation comes into force post-Grenfell Tower, the industry needs to think about procuring a building like we build aeroplanes.”
Edel Christie, managing director for buildings at consultancy Arcadis, says modern methods of construction are only now beginning to take hold in the industry.
“One area of focus for us is looking at how different asset classes – homes, schools, hospitals – can be delivered through modern methods of construction,” she says. “Building elements offsite in a factory environment can significantly speed up construction programmes, as well as provide greater cost certainty by taking away many of the variables associated with a traditional construction site.”
Ms Christie says construction companies need to work with other organisations to drive the creation and adoption of the technology they want to see.
Start-ups forge the future
Arcadis has partnered with global entrepreneur network Techstars on a programme to develop new businesses that could radically change the way the industry builds in the future.
In August, the partnership invited start-ups with pioneering technologies and disruptive ideas to enter a selection process that will ultimately see 10 entrants embark on a three-month accelerator programme.
“Mentors from both Arcadis and Techstars will work with the chosen start-up companies in a digital Bootcamp to help scale ideas,” says Ms Christie.
Last year’s initiative saw Mela Works take part in the accelerator, as it developed a reporting and communications tool for site workers. Arcadis hopes it will ultimately benefit from tools of this kind in its day-to-day business.
However, Ms Christie agrees with Ms Gawor, among others, in saying that technology adoption should never be seen as a goal in itself. “Ultimately, it’s a tool,” she says.
“Softer skills, competencies and culture all play an important role in realising its value.
“Often, it’s about changing a mindset. If we are more open about how we can all play a part in delivering for the future, it helps us to find more efficient and creative ways of working.”
Article first appeared in Construction News