Opinion: The only way to future proof the UK construction industry is to wake up to the benefits of tech innovation

Mathew Riley
Robots On Display At Robodex2003
This is probably how we'll build houses in the future. Probably. (Source: Getty)

The UK Construction market is contracting.

If this is to be a period of prolonged downturn in construction activity while we await the outcome of Brexit, will we see a return of the ‘race to the bottom’ bidding mentality in construction that normally accompanies an economic downturn? The short answer is “No”.

Those hoping to take advantage of adverse market conditions may at first glance be disappointed. The reason for this is quite simple. In periods of high demand organisations can be more selective and accept lower risk projects thus improving margins, and in periods of lower demand the reverse is true.

However, as the industry enters potential stagnation, there haven’t been the traditional periods of sustained growth to bolster company balance sheets. So what next?

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Fortune will favour the brave. In today’s modern world there is no excuse for poor productivity in UK Construction. If we hope to fulfil our potential then we need to tackle an industry image of technophobes with low productivity, limited innovation, and a high dependency on low cost semi-skilled labour.

Digital design techniques are becoming more widely available, and it is vital that such innovation is both encouraged and invested in. Rapid advances in computational design, and the ability to fully utilise data, create opportunities to revolutionise how the industry is run.

Engineers are developing suites of advanced digital design tools to revolutionise the way we design, plan and build. Created to solve real life engineering and construction challenges, they allow us to model and analyse multiple design options faster and earlier, shortening the planning process, and allowing for easier assessment of changes and options.

There has already been much discussion about the benefits of offsite construction, and a real driver will now be the acute shortage of affordable housing right across the country. An increasing number of organisations are developing their own offsite supply chain.

This is encouraging, but only part of the story. By combining digital design with offsite construction, the industry can feasibly deliver design, engineering and construction the way it should be. I believe that embracing such techniques could boost overall productivity in the sector by up to 40 per cent.

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We need both the government and industry leaders to wake up to the potential transformative benefits of innovation and help deliver a standardisation of digital tools and methods. Realising the benefits of these developments will become easier the more they are adopted.

Massive time compression will result (and time is money), along with safer design and delivery, productivity and improved sustainability. The construction industry will reap rewards, such as a new set of skills to offset the perceived skills shortage, dramatically reduced onsite labour costs, and most of all a sustainable business model that competes alongside other industries for the best talent.

If embraced, such an approach will transform productivity across our industry, saving potentially billions of pounds. This is design, engineering and construction as it should be.

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