More productive industry builds on technology
Summary: Why is it that the manager of a multi-billion-dollar construction site can track the precise location of a $20 pizza as it is prepared, cooked and delivered on a Friday night but has no such luck in tracking a $20,000 cement order due on site earlier that day?....
In Australia, manufacturing and construction face many of the same pressures: a highly unionised workforce, high wages and a high regulatory burden.
One area where the fortunes of these two industries diverge greatly is productivity — since 1994, productivity in manufacturing has nearly doubled, while productivity in construction has flatlined. Manufacturing was quick to respond to new technological innovations in the late 1990s, with centralised plants able to retool quickly to new labour and timesaving machines.
Construction, with widespread sites, longer lead times and more complicated systems, has lagged.
We are just wrapping up a global piece of research that has been led out of Australia looking at changes in construction.
What the results tell us is that there is vast opportunity to raise the game, and the upside is significant, especially given you are talking about a sector that employs five times as many people as mining and is the largest non-services contributor to Australian gross domestic product.
Just looking at last week alone demonstrates that change is coming fast.
Fastbrick Robotics completed a $35 million placement to finalise the procurement, assembly, testing and demonstration of its Hadrian X prototype, which can lay 1000 bricks an hour, the equivalent output of two human bricklayers for a day. And in Britain the government has announced £5.4m ($9.5m) in funding to launch the Centre for Digital Built Britain at the University of Cambridge.
Looking overseas, where innovative approaches are being adopted to lift productivity in the construction sector, is a good place to start.
Prefabrication, a mainstay of the Japanese post-war reconstruction industry, has continued to grow following the series of natural disasters and shortages in the labour force. This technique it is also well entrenched in Sweden, where 80 per cent of new homes are built in a factory.
There are some green shoots. Lendlease’s 15,800sq m Eastern Creek DesignMake facility demonstrates the interest from major players in looking to innovative approaches to lift productivity.
But we’re a long way from leaders, such as Sweden, with only about 3 per cent of our housing being built in a factory.
Prefab and robots certainly can create significant productivity gains in the construction sector, but some of the more immediate gains will come from smart process and management technologies. The creation of a digital core that allows for the integration of site management and construction supply chains has seen a shift from paper-based static data to active data, and provides an opportunity to transform into a living supply chain.
Living supply chain solutions automatically factor in a delayed delivery truck, rerouting other deliveries to use the precious loading dock space on a busy construction site.
This living supply chain and its digital core also notifies the project manager, relevant subcontractors and head office. Budgets, estimations and scheduling are all updated in the background, maximising productivity for the site and the company by keeping all stakeholders in the project notified and productive.
Importantly, all of these technologies don’t need to be about putting people out of work; they enable greater productivity, shorter build times and focus human efforts on higher value tasks and maximising their output. It is about reducing the pressures created in complex projects that often operate on razor-thin margins.
In a sector that has a suicide rate of double the national average, creating better work environments that reduce stress is also a people imperative.
For communities, it is about how projects can be managed smarter and faster to reduce the intrusion a major construction project can have on the local environment and the people who live and work nearby.
On projects that employ key processes and technologies such as building information modelling results have shown up to 25 per cent acceleration in project delivery.
The sector is at a crossroads where the convergence of digital and robotic technologies combined with processes from other industries means the opportunity to create a productivity shift is real. Organisations that are best able to shift gears to reimagine the construction site will chart a new course for the future of one of our most vitally important sectors.