New technologies are transforming all stages of the engineering and construction process, with the potential for companies to realise significant improvements in efficiency, safety, collaboration and mobility. A new report prepared by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, titled The new age of engineering and construction technology, shines light on some of the key innovations transforming the industry, and how companies can best deploy them for more efficient, mobile workflows.
The engineering and construction industry is at the cusp of a new era, with a proliferation of technology start-ups developing solutions to change how companies design, plan and execute projects, and to combat issues that have dogged the sector for decades, such as difficulties with mobility, and compiling and sharing project information.
These improvements are especially important at a time when construction projects are becoming increasingly complex and expensive, and the pressure to improve costs, timelines and efficiency is increasing.
In order to assess the range of solutions currently available or in development, and their potential benefits, McKinsey & Company analysed more than 1,000 construction start-ups and their products.
To investigate how engineering and construction companies can better navigate this changing landscape and improve their strategies to deploy new technologies, they also reviewed responses from a survey of over 200 senior executives in the industry.
The resulting report provides a range of insights into how technological innovation is shaking up the sector, and how companies can make the most of the opportunities this provides.
Innovating across the entire project lifecycle
While start-ups were developing tools across the entirety of the construction project lifecyle – including the design, preconstruction and construction phases – the majority of new technology products targeted the construction phase.
These included enterprise resource planning systems, which are used throughout construction.
Technologies developed for the construction phase generally addressed use cases in three main categories: onsite execution, digital collaboration, or back-office integration.
Solutions for onsite execution primarily focused on:
- Quality control
- Field productivity
Solutions for back-office integration focused on:
- Enterprise resource planning systems
- Equipment management
- Materials management
Solutions for digital collaboration focused on:
- Document management
- Design management
- Performance management
- Contract management
While many of the start-ups examined were simultaneously developing tools for multiple construction use cases in the same category, fewer were developing cross-category solutions.
Enhancing onsite execution with mobile solutions
Frequently, many of the biggest challenges and unexpected issues that arise during a construction project occur onsite. As a result, various mobile solutions are being developed to better integrate workflows, increase productivity, and enhance safety and quality in the field.
Innovative tools to enhance field productivity provide the capabilities to track crew deployment in real-time, manage project staffing, and track onsite productivity at a trade and worker level.
For instance, some tools track the active working hours of each team member onsite by analysing data from wearable GPS devices, or by allowing workers to enter information about their activities, location and hours into mobile devices in the field.
Additionally, technologies that enable team members in the field or elsewhere to remotely access and update important project information in real-time can result in significant productivity improvements and reduce unnecessary data-handling.
Other field productivity applications help companies to manage project staffing across skilled trades or to monitor onsite productivity at the trade or worker level. With one tool, for instance, managers can immediately retrieve data on actual project hours, budgeted hours and remaining hours.
Other solutions focus on improving safety outcomes in the field. These solutions include tools enabling real-time reporting and tracking of safety concerns or incidents via workers inputting data onto mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, enabling faster response to problems and better data.
Additionally, many solutions enable safety warnings and tips to be rapidly disseminated to the entire workforce, through real-time alerts.
One area identified as gaining significant momentum in recent years was safety monitoring enabled by wearables and virtual or augmented-reality tools.
New quality assurance solutions allow managers to inspect remote sites via photos taken in the field and tagged with various information including geographic coordinates, while others allow workers in the field to update and track their punch lists in real-time.
The use of GPS during projects, particularly those related to transportation, has already increased the accuracy of project specifications. This, in turn, increases efficiency and accuracy during onsite execution.
In the future, leading engineering and construction companies hope to create autonomous quality-control systems by combining new technologies and artificial intelligence with other tools, including GPS and building information modelling (BIM).
While most tools in the onsite execution cluster fall into these areas, construction start-ups have also developed products to assist with many other onsite activities, including supply chain logistics.
Bringing the back office onsite
A variety of innovative solutions have been developed to better integrate back-office functions to exploit valuable project data.
Many of these tools focus on giving project managers and other staff members onsite or elsewhere immediate access to real-time back-officedata on their mobile devices.
Key focuses of back-office integration solutions include scheduling, managing equipment and materials, and enterprise resource planning.
Scheduling solutions enable tasks to be created, assigned, prioritised and tracked in real-time, and mean that work plans and schedules can be delivered immediately to workers, wherever they might be stationed at the time.
Materials and equipment management
Tools for materials management allow vital construction materials to be identified, tracked and located across the entire supply chain, through GPS tracking or mobile data input. Likewise, equipment management solutions enable tracking and management of the construction-equipment fleet.
Enterprise resource planning
Enterprise resource planning solutions frequently focus on work order management, remote monitoring building systems, predictive analytics for system management, mid to small project management, and asset management.
These include tools to allow contractors to see which change orders a company’s customers have approved, including those for which they have not yet paid.
Enabling digital collaboration
The various parties involved in successfully executing a construction project – including architects, engineers, project managers, and construction contractors – are more numerous and widely dispersed than those in most other industries.
However, they need to communicate frequently, since certain changes, such as a seemingly minor modification to a materials order, could significantly increase timelines or costs if made too late or not effectively communicated to all parties.
This creates a need for mobile solutions enabling more effective collaboration and making sure all parties are on the same page at all times, with the most accurate up-to-date information.
Key areas of innovation in digital collaboration technology include document management, design management, performance management, and contract management.
Many start-ups are creating tools that let companies upload and distribute documents across all sites, track changes to them, search all projects across phases, and record all decisions made about their content.
For instance, changes to digital documents made in the field can be input on mobile devices and distributed immediately, keeping information up-to-date for all parties and removing the need for changes to paper documents to be transcribed.
In some cases, document management tools can also serve as a permanent repository, providing easy access to past records.
Staff on engineering and construction projects often need to update blueprints and other design documents while onsite.
Rather than returning to the office to complete such tasks, as these workers would have done in the past, innovative technology enables them to make changes in the field. For instance, one mobile platform lets staff add markups, annotations and hyperlinks to blueprints.
Other design management solutions on offer enable the visualisation of drawings and 3D models onsite on mobile platforms such as tablets and smart phones.
With innovative performance management tools, managers can update and immediately share information (including workforce data) in the field, particularly during the crucial pre-construction and construction phases.
Available tools also offer capabilities for real-time monitoring of project progress and performance, and enable updates and past reports to be viewed on handheld devices.
Some performance dashboards can automatically import field data, simplifying the process of collecting information.
Contract management tools have been developed to help staff with a variety of critical tasks including updating and tracking contract compliance checklists, and collecting and disseminating information about client and contractor communications that occur when contract terms are renegotiated.
The key to successfully deploying new technology
According to McKinsey & Company, it is vital for engineering and construction companies to invest in the right new technologies and deploy them in the right way, in order not to be left behind in a rapidly changing industry.
The report suggests that following four key steps can maximise a company’s chances of successfully taking advantage of innovation:
1. Create a focused digital strategy and organisation
- Determine performance goals and identify digital tools that help achieve them
- Appoint a group or leader to take responsibility and drive results
- Analyse current IT systems and determine if they can support new tools
- Identify gaps and set timelines for resolving them
2. Turn projects into test labs
- Identify potential use cases and launch tool pilots during projects
- Measure key performance indicators, celebrate success, learn from failures, and encourage widespread rollout of promising programs
3. Let data lead the way
- Revise fundamental business processes to support digital solutions
- Simplify the process for piloting and deploying digital solutions
4. Increase investment in digital solutions
- Contemplate M&A deals with technology companies
- Identify potential investment partners
- Establish “listening posts” in the industry
The report concludes that “companies that place the right bets now will probably be the industry leaders in the next ten to 15 years if they match their greater investment in technology with a company-wide commitment to change”.