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Construction firms need to switch on to big data to improve productivity

Rich McEachran

'Big data can be a huge asset' (Credit: Shutterstock)
'Big data can be a huge asset' (Credit: Shutterstock)

Constructing a building or other infrastructure without business intelligence and data insights can be thought of as a bit like driving a car whose brakes have failed.

You can follow all the safety procedures, but this doesn’t mean faults won’t occur. 

Just like data and machine-learning algorithms have the potential to help predict brake failures, data can predict faults in the construction phase of a building or piece of infrastructure and across its lifetime. There’s an opportunity for construction companies to tap into streams of data, which can enable them to deliver projects more efficiently and safely. To get to this point, however, there need to be some sweeping changes. 

Over the past few years, the money being poured into construction technology has been soaring. Real estate firm CREtech puts investment during 2018 at $6.1bn (£5.24bn), roughly double the amount invested during the previous 12 months. 

Outdated systems

Despite the positive numbers, for a long time construction companies have been holding themselves back by relying on outdated technology and legacy IT systems. And while there are clear signs that some in the industry are changing their ways, there are others that are either reluctant to embrace digitisation or unaware of the benefits new technologies can bring. 

“The big challenge is the adoption of change – changing the use of practices and equipment,” says Ian Barnes, head of business at Sitech, a provider of Trimble machine control systems. “Construction has an ageing workforce, which can make it difficult to encourage the switch from analogue ways of working to the full-digital age of big data and connected worksites.”

Cultural change

So how can senior leaders be encouraged to embrace new technologies?

This can be achieved by taking a learning-based approach, argues Barnes. Whether it’s through seminars that discuss how the technologies benefit project managers and engineering teams or realtime demonstrations, educating the senior members of a company can bring about a cultural change.

While any company can invest in the latest technology and innovation, there needs to be a clear idea of how any data is to be collected. And, once it has been, how it’s going to be leveraged. “According to one report [FMI’s 2018 Construction Outlook], around 96% of all data goes unused in the engineering and construction industries,” says Richard Cookson, director of customer success at Procore. “This is obviously a real issue, given that data and analytics are essential to help businesses improve their productivity and operational efficiency.”

He adds that construction companies should be taking a single-platform approach to implementing software, rather than having data stored in different systems. If data is shared with all those involved in a construction project – from the engineers working on a site to the procurement team responsible for ordering spare parts – then there are going to be fewer silos and it’ll be easier to find and deal with any faults quickly. 

“Big data [and business intelligence] can be a huge asset when it comes to being able to make more informed decisions,” says Barnes. “The more information you have, the greater insights into a site, the environment, the finished build you get. With this insight, decisions can be made at speed and with more accuracy. 

“It creates confidence in decision making, forecasting and reporting, and this benefits all those involved.”


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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