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Inside Innovation: Analyzing the resistance to innovation in construction

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Analyzing the resistance to innovation in construction

“There is an urgent need for the construction industries to integrate technologies into their models. Only an effective and immediate digital transition will strengthen a weakened sector and support a green recovery that is more necessary than ever.”

Those are the words of Matthieu Walckenaer, managing director of PlanRadar, a French developer of task communication software used in the construction industry.

While Walckenaer speaks to the development of a greener industry, his remarks also address the bigger issue of resistance to innovation throughout construction, that is, the challenge for new ideas and materials to be broadly accepted and used.

Writing in Construction Physics, industry observer Brian Potter says the construction industry tends to adopt new innovations, “one tiny, evolutionary change at a time.”

He says the problem construction has with innovation is one of risk versus reward.

“Each task has a web of influence that can impact every other part of the project. Any system that disrupts an established process is thus inherently risky.”

As a result, it is hard to see dramatic progress in terms of construction innovation, despite certain individual high profile cases, he says.

“What we see is innovations that are evolutionary in nature — things that slot into an existing process, and don’t fundamentally change the systems involved, or the upstream and downstream effects.”

The good news, according to Potter, is that the adoption of innovative technological management tools is moving forward. Slower are the advances in materials and construction processes.

It’s a puzzling and frustrating phenomenon, he continues, one that conflicts with the need to improve the tight margins that define most project work. Yet despite KPMG surveys stating only 31 per cent of projects come within 10 per cent of their original budgets, and only 25 per cent within 10 per cent of their original deadlines, there should be strong motivation to improve.

Potter’s article goes into considerable detail regarding how often costs, budgets and timelines go askew from original outlooks. He uses an interesting analogy to explain his point.

A worker has the single job of driving nails with a nail gun. Each nail takes an average time of one second, with a standard deviation of 0.5 seconds. However, the nail gun must be reloaded every 100 nails. That takes 10 seconds. Then, the worker must go to his truck to get more nails after 500 are used, another 60 seconds. He runs out of nails after 5,000 and must buy more, adding several more minutes. 

Potter’s point is this: “It takes an average of one second to drive a nail, if there are nails available to drive. When the inputs fail, when the worker runs out of nails, that average time goes out the window. Average times describe what happens within a process, but don’t take into account the interaction between processes.”

Construction is complex and involves many different trades. Project supervisors are responsible for keeping everyone on task, on time, and dealing with issues that might stand in the way. A lot can go wrong with projects that are essentially bespoke, that is to say, unique each time. Some processes can’t be undone, like pouring concrete.

Yet there are innovations that can mitigate some of the more unfortunate outcomes.

For example, digital twinning allows buildings to be built and operated virtually and in advance. From that, processes and management systems can be Beta-tested, in a manner of speaking. However, digital twinning only works if all parties are conversant with BIM (Building Information Modeling). Sadly, research suggests that a significant percentage of architects and designers continue to use AutoCAD, two decades after the introduction of 3D BIM software.

Likewise, prefabrication and modularization can reduce what Potter calls the potential for the “cascading failures” that can occur on jobsites — when one bad outcome triggers others down the line — despite certain commonalities in design and construction methodology between projects.  

There are significant cost and time savings to be realized, but only by the bold.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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