Innovation and disruption will save construction millions

The Think Tank is a new Infrastructure Intelligence initiative where we give a voice to big ideas affecting the industry. To kick things off, Ramboll UK managing director Mathew Riley calls for a digital revolution.

There’s been a flurry of activity in recent months from a number of major contractors and specialist traders reporting losses and lower margins - the UK construction market is contracting.

If this is to be a period of prolonged downturn in construction activity while we await the outcome of Brexit, will we see a return of the ‘race to the bottom’ bidding mentality in construction that normally accompanies an economic downturn?

The answer is “No”.

Those hoping to take advantage of adverse market conditions may at first glance be disappointed. The reason for this is quite simple. In periods of high demand, organisations can be more selective and accept lower risk projects thus improving margins, and in periods of lower demand the reverse is true. However, as the industry enters potential stagnation, there haven’t been the traditional periods of sustained growth to bolster company balance sheets. Recent publicity around trading difficulties illustrates this.

UK construction has a habit of playing the victim in times of hardship, and looking to central government to bail the industry out with sharp increases in public spending. But this is unlikely to happen this time, if one takes a look at the size of our national debt. 

So what next? Fortune will favour the brave. 

In today’s modern world there is no excuse for poor productivity in UK construction. However, if we hope to fulfil its potential then we first of all need to tackle an industry image of technophobes with low productivity, limited innovation, and a high dependency on low cost semi-skilled labour.

Digital design techniques are becoming more widely available, and it is vital that such innovation is both encouraged and invested in. Rapid advances in computational design, and the ability to fully utilise data, create opportunities to revolutionise how the industry is run. 

Engineers are developing suites of advanced digital design tools to revolutionise the way we design, plan and build. Created to solve real life engineering and construction challenges, they allow us to model and analyse multiple design options faster and earlier, shortening the planning process, and allowing for easier assessment of changes and options. 

There has already been much discussion about the benefits of offsite construction and a real driver will now be the acute shortage of affordable housing right across the country. An increasing number of organisations are developing their own offsite supply chain, to help tackle this crisis when called upon. This is encouraging, but only part of the story. By combining digital design with offsite construction, the industry can feasibly deliver design, engineering and construction the way it should be. I believe that embracing such techniques could boost overall productivity in the sector by up to 40%. 

However technological advancement without practical experience can create solutions that don’t deliver or integrate. We need both the government and industry leaders to wake up to the potential transformative benefits of innovation and help deliver a standardisation of digital tools and methods. 

However, realising the benefits of these developments will become easier the more they are adopted. Massive time compression will result (and time is money), along with safer design and delivery, productivity and improved sustainability. The construction industry will reap rewards, such as a new set of skills to offset the perceived skills shortage, dramatically reduced onsite labour costs, and most of all a sustainable business model that competes alongside other industries for the best talent. Complex problems can be solved with dynamism and innovation, to deliver iconic projects and contribute to the wider built environment.

So, in light of the recent economic contraction, this is good news for the industry and economy. If embraced, such an approach will transform productivity across our industry, saving potentially hundreds of millions of pounds. 

This is design, engineering and construction the way it should be - and the revolution could be about to begin.