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The Impact Of COVID: How Automation Helps Rebuild The Construction Industry

The current crisis with an indefinite timeline will compel the industry to automate workflows and processes using technologies, and the early adopters will benefit the most.

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

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As said by Albert Einstein, in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. The opportunity to introspect, reorient and reshape. As the world is going through an unprecedented shutdown, and the economic cost is burgeoning, humanity will have an inevitable choice to strive for innovative and rapid solutions. The ongoing scenario presents a unique opportunity to every sector, including construction, for a swift digital transformation now that advanced technologies are expected to break through.

New working methods: challenges and opportunities
For nearly three months, we’ve been working from home and having virtual team meetings. This was unusual for most offices, especially in the developing economies, but has become quite a normal procedure. Companies and managers have started to realize that physical proximity is not mandatory in all tasks, and with the digital world evolving, more and more jobs will be added on the list of telecommuting opportunities.

However, work from home involves a specific set of challenges, some of them behavioural and others relating to infrastructure. While behaviours can be addressed by training and guidelines, functional connections require a policy framework and investments in sustainability.

Recently, National Real Estate Development Council (NAREDCO), an apex body for the Indian real estate industry, has compiled standard operating guidelines to ensure the safety of people in and around construction sites. Whether it’s about maintaining social distancing or virtual collaboration, the role of technology is more and more significant now.

As the global economy is struggling to move forward, the digital economy is providing space to breathe. Automation, robotics and IoT will have a critical role in ensuring uninterrupted construction and safety of the people involved in the process. In fact, we strongly believe that a greater adoption of digitalized workflows across all stages of construction – from design and planning to engineering and onsite work – will be key to overcoming the slump most construction firms are experiencing. The ones who have already jumped on the technology bandwagon are having it easier and reaping the rewards with healthy order books, even in this time of relatively low economic activity.

Necessity is the mother of innovation
For the construction industry, this recession is a golden opportunity to accelerate its digital transformation. Compared to other industries globally, the sector has lagged behind in productivity for decades. As per McKinsey, annual productivity growth in engineering and construction has averaged just 1% over the past two decades, compared with a 3.6% and 2.8% growth rate for the manufacturing sector and the global economy respectively. Another research in the US revealed that for all construction projects, 10% of materials are wasted; 30% of all construction is rework and 40% of jobsite work is unproductive. As a result, 40% of projects go over budget, 90% of projects are late, and the scenario is not very different in India.

The industry can go the extra mile by using modern technology, including data-rich 3D models, cloud-based on-site and off-site project communications and constructible BIM for error free construction. It is estimated that full-scale digitization in non-residential construction alone could lead to annual savings of between $700 billion and $1.2 trillion, or about a tenth of the aggregate annual construction spends globally. The savings will not only act as oxygen to the struggling industry but can translate into higher wages to help nurture and retain human capital. Increased digitalization can mean multiple benefits for the industry.

The technological revolution has already redefined the way we collaborate. And perhaps the pandemic will help us make the most of tools like Trimble Connect, a powerful cloud-based collaboration platform to “hyper-collaborate” and to interact “under one umbrella” with teams involved in the design, construction and operation of buildings. It creates communities of collaboration across and within disciplines, integrating data not only from its wide varieties of applications and devices but also from non-Trimble apps and devices. The arrival of technology into the world of construction has undoubtedly led to a smarter and more sustainable process of construction.

Furthermore, digital devices like drone cameras enable following up on construction sites remotely. This period of isolation is perhaps a good time for professionals to upscale their skills and find new ways of working digitally on progressive devices and platforms.

Social distancing, automation & digital transformation 2.0  
Recently WHO cautioned about the long-lasting effect of the virus, believing it will stay amongst us longer than expected. In this situation, social distancing may become the new societal norm and humanity will need to find yet new ways to be productive.

Prolonged social distancing provides an opportunity for workforce rationalization and an aggressive push for automation in addition to IoT and robotics. The labour-intensive construction industry will now have to shift its focus to automation. Robotics and IoT can further help maintain the social distancing norm without hampering construction work.

Taking the digital transformation vision to the next level, companies like Trimble are collaborating with Boston Dynamics to use robots for routine tasks in hazardous construction environments to improve safety, efficiency, and consistent data capture. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and neural networks can restrict human exposure by eliminating frequent interaction among on-site workforce and suppliers. Furthermore software such as Trimble CrewSight enables you to manage worksite by approving entry on-site of the labours with prior mandatory health checks and making sure certifications are in place. As well can track where the workers are at any point in time and maintain social distancing, and if anything should happen, alert response team to react to the situation.

Before this pandemic, digital solutions were mainly used to ensure construction efficiency and timely completion and profitability of a project. However, the post-pandemic world will see a fresh push for digital transformation, focusing on specific challenges posed by COVID-19. Visualizing the construction process as a continuum or placing a building (structure) along the various stages of a continuum is a powerful way for construction companies to analyze the business value of various technologies at each stage. Using the same scale as a reference, they can easily see the advantages that digitalization brings to actual construction and/or operations.

Technologies and construction processes such as constructible BIM, prefabricated construction, mixed reality, cloud computing, and IoT can drive a massive change in how we design, build and operate projects. As disruptive technologies, they not only have the potential to create new benchmarks of value for all stakeholders in the construction ecosystem but also shape new competitive advantages in the post-pandemic world.

Those who have been delaying the digitalization of processes are now looking at how technology can support their staff in working from home, producing effective outcomes with less travel, and moving more meetings online, thus reducing staff contacts in general. The current crisis with an indefinite timeline will compel the industry to automate workflows and processes using technologies, and the early adopters will benefit the most.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Automation COVID-19 Impact Of COVID-19

Paul Wallett

Regional Director, India and Middle East- Trimble Buildings

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