Part IV: Next-gen technology

Part IV: Next-gen technology

Here’s the next instalment in our series on how midmarket AEC firms can succeed with a comprehensive digital roadmap. Don’t miss the first three posts, on streamlining systems to cut costs, getting onsite IT right, and Building Information Modelling (BIM).

All our advice about technology and the AEC sector boils down to three points:

  1. Have a roadmap.
    This means understanding where you are now in terms of IT, and where you want to get to. (See our free CEO’s Briefing on creating a technology roadmap for growth.)
  2. Recruit people who want to use to technology to grow.
    More on that in our next post.
  3. Stop thinking about cost and start thinking about opportunities.
    We understand that margins are tight. Still, remember IT is an investment—a way to get ahead of the competition and improve your bottom line.

Let’s look at that third point and consider more specifically what’s coming. Many aspects of AEC tend to change incrementally or slowly, if at all. But a number of major changes enabled by technology are emerging which will radically change the industry.

The Internet of Things. As you know, this is a buzzword to describe a variety of networked, tracked or ‘smart’ devices. It promises endless potential to track efficiency and usage, to reduce theft and waste, and to improve health and safety. Just a few examples of how it may work:

  • Hard-hats. Imagine a helmet—or any kind of safety equipment—that ‘knows’ when it’s being used properly. The data can have a real effect on your health and safety compliance records and thus your insurance premiums and exposure to liability.
  • A ‘smart boiler’ will remind you of regular maintenance and even alert you to potential performance issues before they happen, greatly reducing the cost of running a building.
  • Scissor lifts. Or any other piece of large equipment! Imagine if you’re accustomed to renting five lifts for a certain-sized job. But the data suggest that you only need three, saving you a packet. Imagine dashboards showing you utilization graphs and maintenance schedules for all your equipment, so you know who’s using it—and if they’re using it right.

In terms of buzzwords, ‘the Internet of things’ is getting on a bit. Nevertheless, the technology is already showing up in the AEC sector, with a lot more to come.

Drones. Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles (UAVs) are already in use for promotional footage and the like. But surveying is where you’re going to see the biggest savings in spending and time. Drones can collect extremely accurate data—and they’re especially useful for assessing hard-to-reach or potentially dangerous job sites. 

One of our clients is already integrating drones with maps for an archaeological risk assessment. In this way, they’re reducing the risk of uncovering artifacts that might create costly delays or damage something of historical significance.

Bear in mind that drone surveyance will generate huge amounts of data that will need to be processed and shared with the relevant professionals and site managers. So you’ll need the IT systems to match.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). New visualization technologies are becoming particularly useful to architects and surveyors. Clients will increasingly expect to ‘experience’ proposed designs using immersive technologies rather than simply look at a printed plan. And 3D surveying tools will create data that is hugely valuable but difficult to understand without 3D goggles.

This technology is in use for training right now. For example, you no longer have to take a cherry picker off a job to train someone; VR allows for quite realistic training in the classroom—how much weight it can lift, how far it extends before it get top-heavy, how to get down if you’re stuck!

3D printing and fabrication. The fabrication of building materials is about to leap ahead as well. More large and finished assemblies will be fabricated off-site—if you’re building an office-block bathroom, for example, the basins will come pre-bolted to the same board; all you have to do is connect the plumbing. It will be the same with electrics. And more specific items will be fabricated on-site as needed—no more calling around at the last-minute because you’re out of cinderblocks.

These new techniques will drive BIM into the heart of the process and will change the mix of skills and trades onsite. Expect to see more just-in-time manufacturing, less constrained by the weather.

There is surely much more coming to AEC than the above examples. We don’t recommend that CEOs add to their own stress by trying to keep up with all of it. We do recommend asking yourself the larger questions:

  • Where is the value for your business? Which applications of technology will keep you ahead of the competition and help the bottom line?
  • How can you foster a culture of innovation, rather than seeing change as something to be avoided?

Because as we keep saying, there are a few things that you can be absolutely sure of. First, that changes are coming. And second, that IT is central to navigating them. The AEC firms who get this right are seeing great opportunities. The rest will struggle to survive.