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Technology in construction sector is slow to grow

Technology in construction sector is slow to grow

As the digital revolution brings cleaning change across nearly every industry and workplace, Canada’s construction sector is still taking its time, a new survey has found.

As per a survey conducted by KPMG Canada in partnership with the Canadian Construction Association, three-quarters of construction businesses in Canada rate their digital maturity as “fairly low.” The survey, Construction in a Digital World, was administered in Canada in November 2020 to establish benchmarks that can include the sector’s progress in adopting technology.

Executives at approximately three in five of the businesses surveyed report that their organizations “need to moderately or considerably” modify their digital policies. Most are uncertain about which technologies or applications can support them to be more competitive.

A wide assortment of technologies to boost productivity and safety and improve decision-making are already prepared, and innovations are constantly being generated in the construction sector.

These include drones, robotics, predictive analytics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, building information modeling (BIM), sensors, digital twinning, wireless monitoring, and augmented reality. Project management software is also available to monitor supply chains and manage workflows – jobs traditionally managed by supervisors utilizing pencils, notebooks, and graph paper.

Despite all the new digital tools possible, the sector is only now starting to embrace tech, says Lorne Burns, KPMG Canada’s national industry leader, building, construction, and real estate.

“Part of it is a mindset that construction techniques haven’t really changed over the years, and these techniques have always worked,” Mr. Burns stated. “This has been changing in the past year, though, as companies and projects have had to operate through the pandemic,” he added.

“Companies that had already been more advanced in technology witnessed the benefits during COVID-19, such as being able to work remotely [to manage sites] and safely [to keep social distancing]. And those businesses that didn’t have a lot of technology discovered that they need to get more.”

The slow pace of transformation in the sector offers tremendous opportunities for tech companies to produce innovative products and services, says Lauren Lake, chief operating officer of Bridgit, a Kitchener, Ont.-based company that allows a project management software system.

“Potential financiers warned us that the construction sector is reluctant to adapt and wouldn’t take to new technology. We determined to find out directly. We went ‘crane hunting’ – we drove around to job sites where there were cranes and asked people what they needed,” says Ms. Lake, an engineer who co-founded the company in 2014 with its chief executive officer Mallorie Brodie. “We stared at the ‘pain points’ in projects and what kind of tech could make managing them easier.”

The result so far is that Bridgit has increased to 76 employees, and 130 customers are using its software in plans across North America, Ms. Lake says. The field is wide open.

“We’re competing with Excel spreadsheets and clipboards.” Many companies continue change because the business model for construction doesn’t lend itself to an obvious adaptation of new technology, says James McKellar, director of the Brookfield Centre in Real Estate and Infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

“Every single project is one of a kind. They normally go to the lowest bidder and projects often get into positions that aren’t spelled out – you dig and you hit water or environmental problems, for example,” he says. “It’s never easy building an 80-storey tower. Technology can perform a role, but it doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems themselves,” Prof. McKellar adds.

“There are niches where technology changes things – for example, fly-form construction [bringing in premade building components by cranes, helicopters or drones]. The biggest productivity gains came from small things – cordless, hand-held power hammers and saws,” he says. “But people using these tools are still more or less doing what they did before, just faster.”

Encouraging the construction sector to embrace high tech more quickly might require a wholesale overhaul of the way the industry is set up, Prof. McKellar says. “It means looking at everything from the way contracts are drawn up to training labour.”

The KPMG-CCA survey agrees that the business structure of the sector is a hindrance to change. “Many construction firms have had little incentive to invest in technology, with current procurement practices placing much of the project risk and associated costs on the shoulders of contractors,” it says.

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