The construction industry – a leader or a follower in the fourth industrial revolution?

World-leading, innovative technology is being used successfully to transform manufacturing into an industry which is responsive to demand, dynamic in development and increasingly efficient in delivery. As we cross the threshold of the fourth industrial revolution, manufacturers across Europe are embracing the need to seize on the distinct advantages of the digital age to generate this efficiency, drive down cost and become more competitive in an increasingly cost-conscious and competitive world.

With one or two exceptions, one sector which is hanging on to current methods of operation and reluctant to change is the construction industry. Very conservative and traditional in its approach, it still relies on a traditional range of capabilities and two dimensional processes, the majority non-digital, to manage its activities. I would argue that the construction industry needs to overcome its reluctance to change and seize the innovation being applied in other areas to drive efficiency, generate sustainability, improve safety and reduce costly waste. The techniques of Building Information Modelling (BIM), used in some areas of the industry, take us part way but the full value has yet to be fully realised as, unfortunately, much of the Industry does not understand the real potential of BIM and is unwilling to take the risks, both financial and operational, of investing in its game-changing capabilities. Companies are doing enough to satisfy government construction mandates but little else. BIM is much more than digital design and realisation – its full spectrum should see the built asset through to ongoing, in-life servicing and maintenance. In other words Building Lifecycle Management.

Unless the Industry grasps the initiative, the SMEs in the construction supply chains, who are being exposed to the changes in other manufacturing sectors, will start to demand change or will desert the construction industry for other, more profitable sectors. Competition is such that supply chain companies seek to gain profitability by working across Primes and Industries. Unless they do, market forces can remove a  smaller company operating on low margins from the business map. Such companies can be aided to become successful and profitable by the application of digital technologies to integrate and configure data provided by the Prime and the full supply chain spectrum.  The considerable amount of data created in any engineering process, if properly configured and integrated, can be harnessed to drive value, cut costs and dramatically reduce waste.

In turn, effective configuration management will drive operations and ongoing services, leading to an increase in the return on equity. That equity benefit will be shared across the engineering and manufacturing Industry – and internationally – as small companies use the planning ability provided to serve multiple customers, becoming competitive and able to deliver value against national and international competition. That is the world into which we are moving.

These moves can be seen in other innovations being developed in parts of the construction sector. The use of prefabrication or offsite, modular construction, with components being produced in automated factories, shows signs of revolutionising the housing market, enabling relatively rapid construction of low cost but high quality housing to meet social demand. The Chinese are, arguably, world leaders in this sphere and are investing in such factories in Europe as they drive economic expansion.

Unless the wider industry recognises such moves and seizes the opportunities, it will be left struggling in the wake of the rapid movers – a mere follower rather than an imaginative, dynamic leader.

The imaginative use of digital technology has the potential to make buildings not only iconic and sympathetic with their place in the landscape but to be intelligent, energy efficient and sustainable. The manipulation of data across a 3D digital data platform enables the integration of retained, legacy buildings, harmonised sensitively with the new development to create places which are special, balancing the old with the new, seamlessly merging the ideas of yesterday with those of tomorrow. This information provides the arteries which allow the dynamism of the construction provider to flow and the imagination of the client to be realised. It harnesses the desired outcomes of the client, the strength and capabilities of the construction industry, and the power of leading edge technology, significantly improving the quality of sustainable construction and creating assets which are fit for purpose, environmentally sensitive and of lasting value.

Taking this further, by configuring relevant and accurate data, with the ability to input from real physical, biological and chemical data sources in three dimensions, it is possible to generate in the virtual world the twin of its real world counterpart. The City of Singapore is a significant example of this relationship between these two worlds. In the virtual Singapore, using data from multiple sources – over 1000 data layers – it will be possible to shape new city developments, anticipate where people will live, work and play, optimise energy use, provide the transportation requirements relevant to the contemporary world, ensure harmony between life and nature and ask the difficult ‘what if’ and ‘if we’ questions in future scenario modelling.

Essentially, the Virtual Twin will enable the city to become a place for people, not just lifeless bricks, steel and concrete. Within that network of data, the inhabitants of the city will have access to relevant information about the city to enhance their lives – where to shop, access to healthcare, transport timetables, notification of educational and leisure activities – the list of services for people is limited only by imagination. That is the future.

It is now up to the construction industry to open its eyes, embrace the digital age and become the infrastructure power house it deserves to be.

John Stokoe

Head of Strategic Development at Dassault Systèmes
John is Head of Strategic Development for Northern Europe at Dassault Systèmes. He is a former Major General in the British Army and, since leaving the Army in 1999, he has gained considerable commercial experience in the construction, infrastructure services and IT sectors, operating at both business unit and Board level.