Monday, 8th October 2018
  • Katharine Carson (Consultant )
  • Rhian Halford (Principal Consultant)

Automation and Digitisation in the Construction Industry: benefits and barriers

It is internationally recognised that climate change is now a major problem, with the construction industry being a key contributor. In the UK, buildings, through their construction, operation and eventual demolition, account for 40% of total energy use (DECC, 2013). Approximately 380 million tonnes of materials and resources are consumed by the construction industry in the UK each year (BRE, 2012), 100 million tonnes of which ends up as waste (Liu et al., 2011). In addition to the environmental issues, projects within the construction industry typically take 20% longer to finish and often efficiencies are not captured early. Digitisation-a global megatrend that has seen many industries transformed, has the potential to increase productivity in the construction industry and help contribute to sustainable outputs and climate change adaption.

Recent years have, in fact, seen the introduction of a number of digital initiatives within the UK construction industry: Drones are changing the way we survey potential development sites and conduct site inspections once construction has begun;  3D printing has enabled cost reduction and time of constructing materials; and, wearable smart sensors allow contractors to monitor the usage of personal protective equipment. Virtual reality has also proved a useful tool in Health and Safety awareness and training on site. In 2011, the U.K. Government introduced the Construction Strategy of 2011 which mandated the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) on its central capital projects from April 2016. BIM provides a live and active interface, where design iterations can be made right up to the construction phase. This ensures that only the correct materials and accurate components are produced, utilising MMC (Modern Method of Construction) through offsite fabrication methods, thereby minimizing waste generation.

However, despite this and the widely accepted benefits of automation and digitisation, the construction industry is among the least digitised; 93% of construction industry players agree that digitisation could affect every process (DIHK), and yet the industry is lagging behind other industries with Research and Development spending in construction behind other industries.

So, just what are the benefits and barriers to innovation in construction?

In July 2018, Temple were joined at their Construction Forum in Manchester by clients, and a guest speaker from Laing O’Rourke who demonstrated their digital technologies in Environmental applications, for a lively discussion on key technology trends and the challenges around digital adoption in the construction Industry.  Below captures some of our discussions on this topic.

Innovation to enhance the construction industry

Innovation can only serve to enhance the productivity and sustainability of the construction industry.  There are many examples of digitisation resulting in improvements in productivity, logistics and supply chains, and procurements with organisations such as Laing O’Rourke deploying a  digital engineer in all projects to truly identify and embrace digital opportunities.

The oil and gas industry benefitted from the introduction of CRINE (Cost Reduction in the New Era) in 1994; a collaborative effort to find ways of reducing waste and inefficiency in platform construction. Driven by  a drastic decrease in profit margins, CRINE saw radical improvement in the safety, efficiency and economics of developing and operating oil and gas fields in the North Sea. Planning can improve work patterns and direct labour to where it is needed, increasing efficiency.

Projects are ever more complex and an increasing demand for environmentally sensitive construction means traditional practices are challenged. Stress must be placed on the incentive for players in the construction industry to identify solutions to transform productivity and project delivery through new technologies. For example, Laing O’ Rourke have adopted logistics modelling through a swept path analysis to identify ecological issues during construction which provided many benefits including advanced tree pruning, incorporation of tree and vegetation locations and reduction of impacts on retained trees within the construction areas. Further more, by embracing context modelling using photogrammetry, Laing O’ Rourke are able to scan and model existing site topography and surrounding environment more accurately providing improved logistics and a better understanding of surroundings including watercourses and green infrastructure and its impact on project restraints.

Around 80% of all construction work is still done on-site. However, many developers and contractors are deploying new off-site approaches that help improve predictability, consistency, and repeatability. This is especially critical given the realities of a shrinking work space, labour shortages, and more exacting safety and environmental standards. For example, Laing O’ Rourke demonstrated their case study of incorporating Design for Manufacturing Assembly (DfMA) at off- site Explore Manufacturing facilities at Steetley. Each DfMA components produced at the factory labelled with unique 16-digit reference codes and components can then be tracked at any point using a digital model. The technology allows for more accurate management information and the ability to view a real-time project’s DfMA status throughout the entire process. This has many benefits including less disruption during delivery and installation and minimised impact on local residents due to reduced congestion and associated construction nuisance impacts.

Businesses within the construction industry should also seek to use artificial intelligence and robotics in a responsible way to encourage continued innovation and research, whilst helping workers and institutions adapt to the new demands posed by these technologies through nationwide government policy.

Barriers to innovation in the construction industry

Although there are multiple benefits and opportunities available for the construction industry to fully embrace innovation, there are still barriers to overcome.

For instance, rolling out innovative solutions across construction sites for multiple sectors that are geographically dispersed is no easy task. Given the varying sophistication levels of smaller construction firms that often function as subcontractors, building new capabilities at scale represents another challenge.

Furthermore, total R&D expenditure in the UK in 2016 represented just 1.67% of gross domestic product (GDP). Although this had increased from the previous year, reaching an all-time UK high, it remains below the European Union provisional estimate of 2.03% and as a percentage of GDP, the UK ranked 11th of all EU countries. There is a clear need for increased government spending within construction related R&D and a further need to incentivise private spending through policy, similar to the 2011 Construction Strategy, and / or monetary incentives that encourage change.  Indeed, in 2017, the UK Government announced plans to increase R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, providing an extra £2.3bn of public money.

We also discussed that the construction industry lacks a well-structured, unifying framework for sustainability. Integrating BIM with construction methods could help address this shortcoming. Indeed, BIM is often used by Laing O’Rourke and many others in the industry as a collaboration tool to improve design and help identify information flaws as well as communicating issues to verify solutions.

Concluding thoughts

The construction industry currently suffers from inefficient logistics and communication methods to truly integrate an end- to-end digital process.

However,  advances in the industry have began. Local and national government, as well as the industry itself, have the opportunity to improve the strategic vision with regards to sustainability through implementing and adopting innovative practices. For example, many in the industry have committed to R & D investment with Laing O’ Rourke for example announcing a budget of over £32 million last year with their Engineering Excellence Group which undertake R &D in collaboration with the UK’s leading Universities. A change in management structure could also prove beneficial by introducing a bottom up approach,  the industry would provide more scope for ownership through leadership.

However the process of technological innovation and associated risks and opportunities should be managed in a sustainable manner within the innovation strategy of the construction industry. This requires vigilant  and continuous monitoring of emerging technologies and associated impacts on the industry as a whole from all professions.

Temple are leaders in environment, planning and sustainability.  Our Construction Environment Management (CEM) service helps clients to manage their environmental issues throughout the construction process.  Temple can help you to develop management plans to meet planning requirements and project obligations.  To read more about the services we offer and discuss further how digitisation can help you, please visit our website at