Technology expert and PCL Construction CIO Mark Bryant discusses the changes and challenges facing an industry in the midst of a digital revolution.
For some, construction and technology go together like oil and water. While technology can be all about the latest startup, the construction industry is one of the oldest in Canada. The nation’s largest firm, PCL construction, was founded well over a century ago in 1906. And like many well-established companies, their IT focus has been on more traditional endeavours like software updates and server maintenance.
According to the company’s CIO Mark Bryant, that’s all changed during the past few years–but it’s been a challenge. “IT people don’t have construction knowledge,” he explains. “Construction workers don’t have the IT skills on the level that’s needed. But if you put them together, it would be chocolate and peanut butter.”
Bryant has spent the last 10 years transforming the business into a digital leader, incorporating cutting edge technology, smart devices and drones into the field. “My core responsibility is to continue to advance. I want to modernize and push us into the new age of construction.”
Four predictions for the future of construction
The past decade has seen rapid advancement in construction and that development isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. In fact, Bryant theorizes that the next five years will connect technology and building even more deeply.
- Sensors: PCL is already utilizing concrete curing sensors, but Bryant also foresees the use of the IoT device in everything from drywall to tools to hardwood floors for real-time data on the factors affecting their performance or safety, such as humidity levels. “Today we get alerts. Tomorrow sensors will be pervasive, intelligent and pretty cool!” says Bryant.
- Digital twin: In essence, a digital twin is an exact replica of a building in a digital format. “Think of it as a building talking to you,” explains Bryant. “I’m too hot. I’m too cold. There’s a water leak on floor eight. It creates the ability to see exactly how a building is performing and functioning in all aspects.”
- Augmented and virtual reality: Because PCL has a goal of zero incidents, Bryant is most keen on applying technology to this area. “We might see augmented reality in safety training and have employees actively participate in ‘what if’ scenarios. This creates a lot of opportunity for training because it makes it real.”
- Robotics: The team has already used the viral robotic dog along with drones, but according to Bryant, that’s just the start. “We'll see robotics that haven't even been dreamt up yet.”
Barriers to entry: Four obstacles to digital adoption in construction
As with most industries, big change does not come without challenges. Construction sites are highly complex and typically bustling with activity. It can be difficult enough to stay on budget and on schedule, let alone introduce completely new factors like smart technology. As such, Bryant considers these to be four of the top obstacles to implementing IoT and similar advancements in the field.
- Project-based assignments: Depending on the complexity, a site can take months or even years from start to finish. PCL-built arena Rogers Place in Edmonton took over two years to complete, with nearly 100 workers1 remaining on the build from start to finish. According to Bryant, once employees begin a new job, “They’re surprised to see drone technology and other changes. It’s a challenging work model.”
- Training gaps: Because of this employment structure, ensuring consistent education and training across the industry is difficult. “The investment in technology isn’t as large as it needs to be,” explains Bryant. “It usually takes five years to get full industry adoption on a new tool. If we invest more heavily, we can onboard something completely new in less than a year.”
- Profit margins: Though constriction projects often come with big price tags, after factoring in the cost of materials, labour and other expenditures, the resulting margin is actually quite thin. This makes it more difficult to source funds for testing new technology solutions.
- Digital fatigue: Because there’s been a significant increase in technology in such a short time period, it’s understandable that crews would feel a bit overwhelmed with the amount of change. “We’ve implemented more technology in the last five years than the history of construction combined,” says Bryant. “You get to a point where a human can only consume so much change in a period of time. We need to stay on top of technology, but also make it as easy as possible for our field workers.”
What’s next? Building for success in construction
Despite potential roadblocks, Bryant has strong optimism for the industry’s increasing ties to technology. “There’s never been a better time to be in construction.” He also acknowledges the digitization shift is happening across sectors, and construction is simply one of many in flux. “Technology isn’t going to stop. Our competitors aren’t going to stop.”
Bryant reflects on his young kids, who have never known a world without the internet. “The internet to them is like water. It’s just there and it’s always been there. We need to start thinking of telecom as a required service like that. It’s become the same thing as water and electricity.”
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