It’s almost become cliché to say that the construction industry has been a laggard in adopting technology. Historically we have been slow to change because, frankly, we have not been forced to change.
There are additional factors that have kept the construction industry from easily adopting new technology. For example, construction projects do not have the consistency of manufacturing or farming that easily allows change to be measured for improvement. Nor do those industries have the risk associated with construction project variables. In our industry, emerging technologies are adopted only when they offer exponential increases in performance or profit, or when a competitor gets an upper hand because of them.
Kahua founders Brian Moore and Scott Unger have often recalled their first few industry trade shows in the mid-1990s when they were proposing an internet-based project management information system (PMIS) for construction, and how radical that seemed to everyone. “That will never happen in our industry,” they heard over and over. But using the internet to collaborate created the kind of exponential improvement that forced competitors to respond to one another.
Within a few short years the industry changed in favor of adopting internet construction PMIS and now it would be hard to imagine running a major capital project any other way. There is growing consensus that with the current infusion of new technologies in construction, our industry may go from being a laggard to being a leader, while a new generation of PMIS will remain as the critical collaboration component.
According to Crunchbase, venture capitalists have this year poured nearly $3 billion dollars into new construction technology companies. This investment trend started in 2018 but was interrupted by the pandemic. Prior to 2018, these investments were counted in hundreds of millions. But as stated previously, outside investment in technology alone does not necessarily foretell adoption. Profit and competitive pressure will. And it seems that a global pandemic will.
The ongoing pandemic created new protocols and those new protocols required a rapid adaptation of new tech. Away from construction, everyone learned that we can virtually hold meetings, classes, and family reunions, via a web browser. Mandates to be onsite in an office environment have been almost universally relaxed or abandoned. Construction project teams have also adapted. We took the technology we already had and began to use it in ways that we resisted for years. Design review sessions now routinely take place online. The same is true for coordination meetings with the various building trades on a project.
Consider also how many agencies previously required “wet signature” processes and have now adopted electronic signature tools instead. The wearable technologies on a job site were created primarily to enforce safety but were deployed on job sites to monitor the health of workers, keep them socially distanced as much as possible, and to assist in contract tracing. We were forced to adapt so we did. And this will have lasting beneficial implications.
Search for “construction technology trends 2021” and the results will offer a variety of top technology lists and projections, evidence that our industry is changing faster than ever before. We’ll see huge increases in the use of robotics and drones to perform physical tasks. The wearable tech industry is expected to double by 2023. Workers are employing exoskeletons to assist in lifting heavy material. And entire buildings are being printed with 3D printers. An article by British communications provider UKConnect suggests that PMIS may be at the center of this wave. They rank “Big Data” as the top technology to impact the construction industry in 2021 and beyond. “Big data can pick out probabilities and patterns of risk, …can determine optimal phasing of activities and improve efficiency.” If we are adding technologies to a project, we are also adding data. As with any other bit or byte of information, the question is how can we most effectively harness its power? A construction PMIS that harnesses the power of project data will become even more important.
PMIS is defined as a tool or series of tools that provide a methodical process for collecting and using project data in order to more effectively manage projects. Why are PMIS systems important in the construction industry? Because more effectively managing projects is important. Because more effective management leads to better results, more successful projects. Construction executives need real-time visibility into project performance and risk. Information about cost, schedule, and quality enables thousands of decisions. The better the information is the better the decisions made will be. Without a successful PMIS, a construction project manager must become a master manipulator of disconnected spreadsheets and documents. These very manual processes waste time and money in an environment where margins are very thin.
With innovative technology added to construction projects many construction owners and contractors will need to reassess their current PMIS environment. With all these rapid changes collaborative project management information systems will need to be very adaptable. Owners and contractors should look for PMIS that provides an agile environment to address unplanned change and future technology needs. Methods and processes will change as new kinds of information become available on a project. The most successful organizations will prepare by adopting a PMIS that allows for rapid application development to address new processes. We will likely see “Platform as a Service” replace “Software as a Service” because it accommodates this kind of rapid advancement.
Owners and contractors will also need to consider the security of these new data sources. Is their current system for sharing information as secure as it will need to be when new types of data are entered? The answer is likely no. Will security concerns become more important? The answer is likely yes, so this must be a significant consideration.
The pandemic and the US government’s plan to restart the economy with infrastructure construction projects has created incredible incentives for improving our use of technology. Our industry has never seen these kinds of external pressures before. It’s a moment of opportunity. Some will embrace the opportunity and win. Others will lament, “That will never happen in our industry,” until they are forced to catch up, or forced to shut down.