Construction Tech 2021: What's New and What's Next?
We sat down with industry experts from Bluebeam and Egnyte on March 3, 2021 to tap into their insights and predictions on the Top 10 Construction and Engineering Technology Trends going into 2021.
On the webcast were Omar Sheikh, Sr. Professional Services Manager at Bluebeam and Ronen Vengosh, VP of AEC and Business Development. Omar interacts with a wide range of stakeholders and decision makers across the AEC segment with a focus on the interoperability of data across the technology stack, while Ronen leads a company-wide effort to continually enhance Egnyte's construction and engineering offerings. Moderating the webcast was Carole Filion, Construction Technology Consultant. Carole has been involved in construction technology for more than 15 years in a variety of roles, including that of editor-in-chief to an industry newsletter.
As time only allowed us to cover the first six of our top 10 trends, we kept the conversation going offline so that we could take a deep dive into the remaining four. Here is the transcript from that conversation.
Design & Modeling Technologies
- Question to Omar: technology adoption has increased significantly in the past year. How do you see this impacting productivity in the upcoming year?
Omar: We've all seen the impact that technology adoption has had over the past decade - the way in which we build, the way in which we design the projects that we have at hand. Now that we're getting technology into the hands of more and more people, that productivity is only going to exponentially grow. Bluebeam Global Services surveyed customers who have made Bluebeam Revu a part of their organization's technological transformation, and at individual companies 82% of users reported quantifiable savings in time, 80 percent reported improved work quality, and over 70 percent said they boosted productivity. And all of these new ways of working can be measured and tracked over time - and most importantly improved upon based on that data. The shift to digital solutions delivers both immediate benefits, and sets you up for long-term improvement.
- Question to Ronen: It’s been said that the collection and creation of design and modeling data is easy, but then the consumption of these large data sets poses a common problem in moving to the next stage of the project. Can you speak to how you see this problem being addressed going forward?
Ronen: One of the key elements in Design and Modeling is that we're going to see more and more applications generating vast quantities of data, whereas before you just had some images and videos. Before you might have taken a point cloud made of 200 points, now you're taking 10s of thousands of points. How you get all this data and manage it is a big deal. More importantly, how you take it out of the job site and move it to where it needs to be consumed and processed.
There are some really interesting things being done in this realm. One of the things that we've done at Egnyte is build something called Cloud Connector that lets you migrate files from the job site - even if they're huge files - all the way up into the public cloud, so you can process them and then take that data back to be able to share it and use it. I think we're going to see massive adoption of workflows like that in the future, because the amounts of data that are being produced will be very hard to manage and share on premises or on the job site.
- Question to Omar: Using Amazon and other public clouds for processing large volumes of data is on the rise. Where can construction best benefit from this trend?
Omar: We talked about this a little bit in the webinar itself. Recognizing the fact that you've been collecting data for years, just by using digital construction methods, and now looking at all those disparate sources of information and being able to connect them and identifying trends in order to get that competitive edge. I think, and it’s not just on the large data sets, that we're now seeing data become much more accessible to the regular end users. Tools like Tableau and Power BI are allowing users to connect different disparate sources of data and gain insights. We're not just stuck in Excel anymore and that really allows us to start really valuing the data that we have.
Ronen: Do you have an example of how one of your customers has been able to pull information out of unstructured data that they've been working with?
Omar: We've got a great case study on our website about one of our customers, Turner Construction, who turned their traditional pull planning process digital. They were using the equivalent of digital Post-it notes within our collaboration environment studio, taking that information out, using Power BI to translate it and then visualizing it and measuring the impact-to-schedule, impact-to-time, and impact-to-location of that data.
Ronen: That's awesome! So a direct link between creating that data, analyzing it and driving margin.
- Question to Ronen: Does cloud computing add yet another wrinkle, or layer of confusion, to an industry that is already dealing with data silos? How does this fit into the big picture?
Ronen: It fits in by being yet another data silo and in many in many cases, multiple data silos, and this needs to be treated with considerations for security, compliance, and how to retain and manage access rights to that data. The fact that you throw something up in AWS doesn't make it secure and doesn't make it available to you when you need it. This needs to be part of a holistic strategy for retaining, securing and managing data. Folks aren't necessarily thinking about the cloud with a full plan for addressing those security and governance needs. It’s coming, but it needs to come faster.
Omar: That's a great point, but I'm going to challenge you on one thing, Ronen - that this is just another data silo. I see it a different way. If we can collect and aggregate that data into a single repository and treat it as our source of truth, then we are unifying our data. It centralizes our retention strategies and our way of analyzing that data. We hear from our customers that data accessibility is more important than ever and a key goal moving forward. So, I take your point, however it's also unifying at the same time, it is just based upon how we perceive our source of truth.
Ronen: Granted, the cloud can act that way, especially when you're seeing large organizations moving off of their on-premises data centers and moving stuff into the cloud. But the issue remains that not all the data is going to reside there and you need to treat this as another source.
The other thing I'll say is that, while working with tools like Power BI, you're going to get great analytical powers out of that. However, the cloud services themselves don't come with the built-in workflows and tools needed to succeed, so you have to consciously go in and build them and make it work in a way that's useful. If you just throw stuff into ObjectStore and AWS, no intelligence is coming out of that. You still have to secure it. So it's about approaching this very mindfully as part of this whole content strategy for the organization.
- Question to Omar: Since we’re talking about the holistic strategy around the cloud, what else needs to be taken into consideration?
Omar: We're also seeing customers creating new roles within their organization, like data scientists to gather and analyze this data. That didn't exist two years ago.
Ronen: Coming from the software space, we're used to having data scientists but that doesn’t mean it’s the first thing that people think about when they think of construction. The value of the information that you have then becomes very concrete, as it were.
- Question to Omar: One of the underlying fears in construction and engineering is that automation can ultimately replace humans, and jobs will start going away. How do you see the rise in automation actually presenting the opposite?
Omar: When I think of automation today, it isn't replacing what a person can do and the value that a person brings. It's doing two things: firstly, it is negating the need to do repetitive, unproductive tasks that these trained design and construction professionals would rather not be doing. Secondly, it’s producing data that we need to analyze so construction professionals, design professionals can get back to what they'd rather be doing, rather than taking their job or role away.
Ronen: There is this constant talk about a shortage of skilled specialists in the industry. I think that rather than thinking in terms of employment reduction, we should be thinking about those skilled specialists and where they spend their time. How can we improve their productivity, because that impacts the bottom line.
Folks have been saying that construction is one of the lagging industries in terms of productivity growth over the decades. I think we're entering a new phase where automation is driving a lot of this productivity growth and that productivity growth may help to offset the shortage of skilled labor. I don't think it's going to negatively impact employment any time in the near future.
At the same time I'll go back to the previous point and say all of these automation tools are generating massive amounts of new data and to truly get the benefit of this kind of technology, you need to find a way to, at scale, collect, analyze and derive intelligence and business value from that data. So I see tremendous opportunities for both margin improvements and for productivity gains.
Omar: There's also another side to automation that quite often gets overlooked: we look at automation in terms of technology, but we also need to look at automation in terms of process. Architects and construction professionals are often creative individuals who really prefer to design and develop their own processes. But to really be able to accelerate productivity, we don't just need automation through technology, we need automation from agreed-upon processes that cross disciplines and connect projects from design to handoff.
Ronen: This is also about reducing downtime, reducing communication loss, reducing all the overhead that folks don't like to deal with, like figuring out which file is being worked on, getting that information over to the person that needs to see it, and collecting their feedback.
Omar: A recent study by FMI said 45 percent of construction professionals’ time is spent - over 14 hours a week - on non-productive activities, including searching for project information, conflict resolution and dealing with mistakes and rework.
- Question to Ronen: Are there other considerations, like safety, that need to be taken into account?
Ronen: Yes, just in terms of a specific use case, instead of having folks climb on the outside of tall buildings to do inspections, you achieve the same results with drones. The value of the number of lives saved or injuries prevented based on that alone is immeasurable. I'm not even mentioning dedicated solutions designed to analyze images and video for safety and violations which are really coming into vogue. There's a lot of stuff that can be done that will save lives.
The rise of design-build
- Question to Omar: More and more contracting firms have either turned to a design-build business model or have acquired design-build firms. Why do you think that is and what do you see happening in the future?
Omar: First and foremost, design-build has proven to be productive and a better way of running a project than our more traditional methods. A recent survey found 58 percent of owners said they’ve used or plan to use a design-build approach, moving away from traditional design-bid-build. So those that are investing in design-build and/or acquiring design-build firms are really leading the way in driving this industry forward in terms of productivity and the time to deliver projects on schedule, on budget, on time.
Not only that, but those design-build firms that they're acquiring are typically much more technologically advanced. They're typically on the leading, or even the bleeding edge of innovation. So what can these larger firms that are acquiring these smaller firms get from that? It's either going to go one of two ways: it's going to accelerate the adoption of technology through that larger firm, or it's going to stifle the creativity of the design-build firm they've acquired. Of course, we all hope that it's the former, not the latter and that we're really accelerating technology adoption through the industry as a whole.
Ronen: I just want to draw attention to one element here, which is the acquisition process. One of the biggest challenges in acquiring a new entity is merging the IT systems and practices, and making sure nothing is lost. When there’s an acquisition, IT people have a big task on their hands. We know of a lot of customers that have been repeatedly buying other entities, as a way of generating inorganic growth, so having a strategy around that part of your information environment is another very valuable thing to consider to reduce downtime or information loss when you're acquiring and merging systems.
Omar: Well, think about it, when you acquire a new company, you’ve doubled your data sprawl. You've now got double the amount of information sources out there, so how you gather them together, merge them together and choose the right solutions - out of the solutions that you have on hand - are key to really drive innovation forward.
- Question to Ronen: Design-build adds a different flavor to data governance as design-build firms’ roles can often change from leading to subcontracting on various projects happening in tandem. How can companies adapt on the fly to make sure the data is always in the right hands?
Ronen: First of all, it all comes from understanding what you need to achieve in terms of your business strategy: which systems need to be kept, which ones need to be migrated, which ones need to be merged. You have to come at this with a really solid plan, and plugging in Egnyte’s core skills here, a lot of our customers have built a really robust model to handle data information migration. Using Egnyte allows the companies that they’ve acquired to maintain the level of skill and knowledge, while giving the mothership direct insight into what's happening down on the ground, by managing that information as a central repository.
Bottom line is, you have to come at this with a plan. It's not going to happen organically.
Omar: On the flip side of that there's also the contractual mechanism that needs to change. With these new blends of models and with different ways of delivering projects, now the ownership of risk changes. Contracts, legal agreements and budgeting need to change to be able to facilitate that and, as we know, legal takes time. Companies are, rightly so, a little bit conservative on that change, so we need them to come along with us to help move and accelerate these new ways of building.
And it's not just contracts between partners on the project but it's also government entities - our cities, our municipalities and the way in which they're issuing permits, and what documents they require for permit application or permit retention. We need to adopt a newer way of working to really accelerate this.
Construction technology adoption has definitely taken the passing lane in the past year and appears to continue its acceleration into 2021 and beyond. Thank you to Omar Sheikh and Ronen Vengosh for their thoughtful insights on design and modeling technologies, cloud computing, automation, and design-build. It’s been a great conversation and we’re coming away with new ways of looking at construction and engineering technology.
To learn more about how construction companies and technology partners are leveraging innovation for accelerated growth, register for the Egnyte Exchange: Construction and Engineering Summit, from 1-5 p.m. ET, March 25.
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