COVID-19 and the various restrictions, limitations and shortages that have come with it have made “going digital” in the construction industry more beneficial than ever.
Pilar Bonilla, an instructor in British Columbia Institute of Technology’s School of Construction and the Environment, says large companies understand the benefits of supporting their operations with technology, but many of their smaller counterparts have been slower to catch on.
“Too many of them haven’t recognized the value of adopting digital technology,” said Bonilla. “A good reputation is important, but brand is not enough. Companies that used to be busy have gone out of business because they didn’t keep up with the latest technology.”
Helen Goodland, head of research and innovation at SCIUS Advisory Inc., a Vancouver company that works with the building industry, says the small construction companies she encounters are of two kinds.
“There is unprecedented interest from some of them, the ones who know how they will benefit from using a particular technology, such as BIM [building information modeling],” said Goodland. “They know they need to be efficient, reliable and productive, and that digital technology will enable them get there.”
The second kind of small companies are “fighting tooth and nail” not to digitize their work processes.
“‘We’re too small, and we don’t have enough time,’ they say,” she said.
Fortunately, the tech-hesitant don’t need to invest a lot of time and money in expensive technology in order to improve their work processes, says Goodland.
“For example, some lean construction can be done without it,” she said. “Or a small company can hire a construction expert for a few days to look at its business processes and tell it where it can be more efficient. And there are government COVID-19 recovery funds available to subsidize its efforts.”
Goodland says the right digital solutions for a company should be selected after it first understands its business needs and what processes its clients use.
“And before a company invests in new technology, there is a lot of good, free information online to help it,” said Goodland. “CanBIM, for example, is a great resource. And the company should talk to its young hires. They’ve been trained in the new technologies and they can mentor their employers.”
Mark Taylor, president of Mark Taylor Construction Advisory Services Ltd. on Vancouver Island, says digital technology for small- and medium-sized construction companies falls into the categories of nice-to-have and need-to-have.
“Good scheduling software is a must,” he said.
BIM can be both a need-to-have or a nice-to-have, depending on the type of work.
“If you are a trade with a lot of complex co-ordination requirements, or if you can do more prefab, then you should definitely have BIM,” said Taylor. “But if you are a trade with limited co-ordination requirements, BIM holds little value for you.”
General contractors can use BIM to co-ordinate their trades.
“When a project reaches a certain size, value or complexity, they need to have BIM,” Taylor said.
Online construction management software can be a big help to general contractors, and, by extension, their trades, he says.
“Again, the value really starts to come into its own as a project increases size and complexity, the number of documents, trades and quality requirements,” Taylor said. “And as more project information goes online, companies need to invest in giving their field supervisors tablets or iPads so they can have all that information at their fingertips on-site.”
Taylor says to be aware of accounting software that claims it can be used for construction management.
“The ones I’ve seen aren’t set up to run the way a construction project team would use it to be efficient,” he said. “The prime focus of the software is still accounting.”
Finally, says Taylor, companies that are new to digital technology need to recognize it takes time for software to show its benefits.
“As with any new system, there will be teething troubles and things often get worse before they get better,” he said. “But once companies have gone through these initial pains, the productivity gains will start to come.”
Once they’ve decided on software, companies need hardware to run it on.
“We prefer Intel processors, starting with the i5 processor,” said Vlad Mayzel, owner of 604-GET-HELP Computer Services in Vancouver. “Don’t settle for less.”
Mayzel also says the generation of the processor matters, so get the 10th or 11th.
“Make sure you have enough memory,” he said. “Construction companies need enough memory to work with large documents. While eight gigabytes is the bare minimum, I’d go with 12 or 16 for laptops. or 16, 32 or even 64 for desktops.”
Finally, Mayzel says to go with solid state drives, not the old mechanical hard drives.