Breaking tradition - why construction needs an industrial revolution

Until recently, the construction industry has suffered a technology by-pass, relying on centuries-old processes and procedures to manage dazzlingly complex modern projects. Today, however, the same software applications that make manufacturing industries so efficient are being deployed in building construction with transformative results, says John Stokoe.

In 50 years of the most accelerated technological advances, a period in which industry after industry has used technology to improve efficiency, the art of building has lagged far behind. Consequently, studies of the construction industry by The National Institute of Standards and Technology SITC, as well as Tulacz and Armistead, have documented 25% to 50% waste in coordinating labour and in managing, moving, and installing materials. In many cases talent and skill are underused, avoidable accidents happen and productivity remains low. 

The only upside to these statistics is that the construction industry offers tremendous potential for gains in efficiency levels, simply by applying the same proven processes, practices and technologies already common in more automated industries. With high projections of growth - PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that by the end of this decade, construction will account for more than 13% of the global economy - the time is ripe for change.

Current thinking is that the construction industry needs to look to history for inspiration and specifically to economist Adam Smith. Smith's ideas of segregating tasks and the division of labour have been implemented in engineering over the last 250 years to produce an abundance of goods at affordable prices. This increase is the result of productivity that has been accelerated through the application of Statistical Process Control (SPC) on a unified business platform that helps both to generate supply and to satisfy demand. 

Tall storeys 

Process models for construction have remained largely the same for hundreds of years, with highly skilled labour carrying out tasks for which they are over qualified 80% of the time. Simply externalising work, i.e. making components in a factory, enables manufacture by lower skilled operators. This cuts cost, improves quality, reduces on-site re-work and allows total operational control. In this system, work on site consists of assembly of quality-assured parts, each guaranteed to be fit for purpose.

Applying SPC to the automotive industry allowed cars to become better and more affordable. The lack of the same methodology in construction has contributed to waste and to soaring prices. But this is about to change because new technology oriented companies are looking at construction as a huge opportunity. We are also seeing contractors joining into larger groups. They are changing building and construction from a cyclical, low-tech, physically exhausting and unsafe industry to one reinventing itself and attracting new innovative talent.

Zero error

Stacking problems occur when small errors in structural components multiply over multiple floors. This leads to electrical, power and other services, such as heating and ventilating, no longer fitting the structure. That usually requires the deployment of highly skilled workers on-site, remodelling concrete with rock drills or making expensive and potentially problematic changes to mechanical services at the point of fitting. Statistical variation techniques, which have been standard practice in the automotive industry for 60 years, would solve the problem at a stroke.

Unfortunately, construction industry investment in research and development is among the lowest of any major industry. But when you start to innovate with technology to drive the use of standardised products and modularised processes, productivity gains are spectacular. 3D simulation technology has made significant inroads into architectural design and fabrication to excellent effect, but process modelling is virtually still non-existent.

To increase efficiency, eliminate waste, and increase profit margins, companies in the construction industry, as well as governments, must invest in R&D. If they don’t, they should be prepared for extinction at the hands of more technologically sophisticated competitors from within or beyond the construction industry. Those that have invested achieve cost reductions and quality improvements that let their companies win contract after contract. New types of companies are building at 40% lower cost. Zero-error buildings are being made where the reduction of re-work is producing bigger profits for those involved.

Clever moves

Attracting outside talent to newly structured construction enterprises gives them a much-needed and valuable intellectual boost. The construction industry is being changed by a small number of very clever and enterprising people who are transforming the industry by taking new approaches, even going beyond 3D simulation implementing new technologies like 3D printing for construction. Unshackled by tradition and equipped with portable, powerful robust and unified platform technology, they are bringing the business into the 21st century.

Construction industry players who don’t step up to the challenge of modernising their processes contribute to holding back the entire industry. The construction industry would do well to look at the legendary thinker and teacher W. Edwards Deming, who made significant contributions to industrial science and practice. Deming proved that individual performance could only be improved by “elevating the entire system". 

Using ideas from Newton, Adam Smith and, in the 20th century, Deming, and combining these with a single universally accessible business platform, the whole of Industry has been able to progress to its current advanced state. Generally, the construction industry did not follow the same enlightened path. Unless prompt action is undertaken, it will be surprised by new companies using advanced 3D simulation control and command technology that efficiently capitalises the massive economic opportunities that present themselves in this rapidly growing industry sector.

John Stokoe is the head of strategic development EuroNorth at Dassault Systèmes.