The Industry is Changing
As I write this book, the UK and indeed most of the world is in a locked down state due to the COVID19 crisis. This virus has forced the shut-down of the economy in many places and mandated that those that can work from home do so. For some this has been relatively easy, due to their already prolific use of online tools, videoconferencing and hosted common data environments. For those on site, the risks have increased considerably, as the hazardous environment that requires PPE has expanded from just the work site, to the journeys to and from that location.
Will this crisis accelerate the change seen already in the construction industry and give us Better Information Management?
I think it will. In the last 10 years we have lost some big-name contractors, due in part to their failure to adapt to significant change and adopt innovative technologies. Those that grasp the opportunity that this crisis presents us and prevent their business sliding back into the old ways of working will carry on utilising technology and promote the change in culture needed to improve productivity. They will come out stronger and more resilient to the new world.
Many organisations that put their staff on furlough, receiving 80% payments from the government until the autumn will, unfortunately go under when those payments stop, and the order books are still not recovered.
I think for many there is a distinct difference between leadership and management which has become much more marked during this crisis. A good leader has two qualities in abundance, firstly the ability to empathise with those that they lead understanding the additional pressures and concerns they might have and secondly the ability to empower them with trust, technology and support to get the job done.
Good leaders have spent the first few weeks of this crisis constantly making sure that their workforce is ok and has the tools to do the job, but not checking up on them every five minutes to make sure that they are meeting targets. I have noticed that those who felt supported and trusted have had a significant increase in productivity.
For those whose work is of a more practical nature, with the need to construct, assemble or install something, the current crisis is hitting them hard. Staying 2 metres away from other members of their team whilst trying to work together can be tough. For many years the industry has been looking at ways of removing or reducing the amount of exposure time for people in hazardous construction environments through the use of robotic and autonomous systems. I’m sure we have all seen 3D printers capable of squeezing out concrete to build structurally safe buildings and whilst exciting to look at I’m unsure how practical they are for the large percentage of our built environment which is not basic repeatable housing.
The speed and accuracy at which a brick laying robot can build a wall is impressive, as is the number of robotic machines can lay paving, one hopes that this will become more widespread into the future.
Demolition robots are another type of construction robot that should make an impact especially when we look at the fatalities during the Didcot power station decommissioning.
While they’re slower than demolition crews, they’re far safer and cheaper when it comes to demolishing concrete and structural components of a building at the end of its lifecycle. There are other types of construction robot, such as autonomous vehicles, but I think the ones mentioned above will have a greater impact.
As we look at ways of removing people from the construction site, these machines will come into their own, especially when coupled with offsite manufacturing, so that the machines are assembling a ready manufactured building, the same way as they would a car in an automotive plant!
Unless you have been ignoring construction publications for the last 10 years, you will know how much more widespread it is to manufacture functional units off site, fabricating, wiring, plumbing, preparing in a safe, dry, warm environment where quality can be better controlled and repeated before it is shipped to site and fitted together.
The factory style environment can be better controlled and social distancing enforced whilst the productivity and quality increased. When looking at home building, this becomes a very attractive proposition, where the customer can choose the functions required in their new house and the building is just a wrapper around it.
With the increase in remote working, perhaps a popular option would be a home office function?
It has been noted that due to the decrease in traffic on our roads and a marked absence of planes in the sky that the air quality has improved dramatically. For the first time in decades the carbon footprint has fallen. It is recorded that China’s CO2 emissions have dropped by a quarter.
As we move into economic recovery, I sincerely hope that we support those businesses and practices that encourage and embrace the net Zero carbon emission targets set by the World Green Building Council.
There is already a myriad of examples of drone use in construction and their acceptance on construction sites is increasing by the day. Removing people from various inspection and survey tasks already seems to be a no brainer, but other applications are being trailed that demonstrate a real innovative way of connecting the digital world to the physical.
A few years back the University of Leeds showed off their work on self-repairing cities, with drones that not only detected cracks in the carriageway using an algorithm previously used for looking at blood vessels in eyes, but also mounted with a 3D printer that would stitch the crack or fill the pothole once detected! With the need to cut down the amount of human interaction these types of solutions can only be accelerated.
Remote working has become the new normal. Those that have been doing it for years have slid into this way of doing things with no worries apart from they now have their families around them during the working day. Those that have never worked from home, have initially struggled, working out how to use the vast array of tools available to them and are catching up.
One interesting aspect has been highlighted in that those who like to arrive early into work and leave late, wanting to be seen to be working hard but in fact not being as productive as they should do, are no longer able to do this. We are starting to measure people’s success through their productivity rather than the amount of time at the workface.
One of the significant costs in construction is office space on site. Not everyone needs to be there, and a huge number of tasks could be done remotely from home or a local office. I know many organisations that will not be re-opening their offices and will be removing hot desking as an option, as this may increase infection risks.
Will we see local offices in towns open up, where you rent a desk space (like you would with a storage unit) with good internet connections and regular cleansing, but with no car parks, just cycle racks as it will be easy to reach in each location.
Whether increases in working from home or from a local office unit, this will dramatically reduce the demand on rail and road infrastructure, perhaps allowing some of the century’s old track or roads to be properly repaired rather than just patched during the night?
It may seem that I am dismissive of CAD, but I have always seen it as the first step towards a better digital world. When taking the first steps in BIM, most organisations started with the simple premise of moving from 2D to 3D CAD. This was a significant step forward allowing people to start to understand about a single source of information (the 3D model) that could have specifically purposed information extracted from it to carry out a task (i.e. 2D Drawings for construction)
When we first started the academy with Crossrail back in 2012, I identified Minecraft as a fantastic example of how CAD should be. A multiple accessed 3D space, with a common coordinate system, classification system and library of common components, where many people can collaborate on the construction of something and simulate various scenarios. All safe from the real world.
These principles are starting to have a big influence on 3D CAD packages leading to the ability of the delivery partner to show the client what they will be getting, how it will be constructed and how it meets the high-level outcomes defined by the end user.
With this capability and the desire to work from anywhere but the office, I can see a more widespread adoption of cloud based, multi-player CAD systems.
Virtual, hyper, mixed and augmented realities have all been around in the construction industry for a while. Some have proved their value; others seem to be a great piece of technology still trying to find a problem to solve! With the increased need to reduce workers exposure to hazardous environments and the need to travel to an office, we have a perfect excuse to use 3D models of proposed designs and 3D photogrammetric models of existing structures in some form of reality solution.
We have learnt from astronauts and surgeons that rehearsing difficult procedures in a virtual world beforehand reduces the risk when doing it for real, this could and should become a day to day occurrence, enabling them to better understand how a task could be done with less people, following correct social distancing rules.
With a requirement for face shields perhaps these become the screens for heads up displays for augmenting reality and the sensors to understand if we are wearing the correct PPE or have crossed into a danger zone, also tell us when we have got too close to a fellow contraction worker?
This proven methodology starts with identifying key assets, creating a link matrix for each sector down to the agreed level, creating both physical and diagrammatic networks before carrying out a Criticality, Accessibility, Recoverability, Vulnerability, Effect and Recognisability analysis.
To conduct this analysis, a set of criteria is defined that will give the user a score out of 5 for each of these 6 CARVER headings. It can be a very subjective analysis but through experience very rapid. This is followed by 2 simple calculations where the scores for Accessibility, Vulnerability and Recognisability are combined to give a Likelihood score and Criticality, Recoverability and Effect are combined to give an Importance score. The total of all of them is the CARVER score, giving you a priority list for your limited resourced relief efforts in this sector.
This single sector assessment is then brought together with other sectors and an interdependent cross-sector analysis is conducted.
The final report identifies areas of concern that are critical to national infrastructure, where vulnerabilities lay and what planning needs to be put in place to increase resilience.
A demonstration project was recently conducted using a wastewater treatment plant as a microcosm of national infrastructure, as it contained interdependent “hubs and connectors” from Transport, Water, Communications, Power, Sanitation, Fuels and Chemicals. This study was conducted in using permissive and non-permissive data gathering techniques, to demonstrate what could be achieved in a disaster zone that was too hazardous for humans to be present.
The non-permissive team used autonomous technologies, open source data and their cross-sector infrastructure knowledge to deliver a full analysis of the site within 48 hours. This analysis closely matched the permissive team apart from a few minor differences.
This proven approach could be easily scaled up to deal with national infrastructure, taught to each of the sectors to ensure consistency and then brought together in a nationwide resilience database. This could also form the foundations of a National Digital Twin.
The Human element
Whilst I am writing this, the world is in the grip of an international crisis. COVID19 has swept across the globe causing a disaster and response unprecedented in human history.
During the crisis the nation must decide what is essential, so that only those who are needed to take risks do so, so we flatten the infection curve and help our health service to tackle the mass casualties when they happen.
Our infrastructure is not automated and requires skilled people to intervene at many key stages in its lifecycle. This critical national infrastructure will cease to support our society, if those key workers can no longer interact with their assets and keep them running.
Another level of CARVER analysis is required looking at the human vulnerabilities and the critical nature of these resources to support our way of life. Once identified then we must have additional people trained up or cross skilled from less critical departments to step into that person’s place if the worst happens!
As we move into the future and robotic and automated opportunities present themselves, the roles identified should be those prioritised.