It’s been a rollercoaster year for construction – from the lows of lockdown, material shortages and furlough, to the highs of major projects restarting and more confidence growing. But there’s been one shining light throughout the darkest days; the impact of comms technology in seamlessly connecting different parts of the industry to ensure projects can restart and get completed.
Nick Sacke, head of IoT and products at Comms365, believes the industry needs to further embrace innovation and digital technologies – especially in the wake of Covid-19. He said, “Construction has now opened back up after months of lockdown. As firms face increasing pressure to get back on track and deliver against rising demand, it’s widely recognised that the sector has
long suffered a reputation for regularly delivering projects later than expected, and often over budget. Even though the sector is rebounding, the industry remains cautious with furloughed staff, redundancies and supply chain disruptions. This means that firms will need to do a lot more with fewer resources for the foreseeable future.”
Jeff May, UK sales director at conferencing specialist Konftel, feels construction is beginning to blossom again. “Big housing projects are now moving forward again after getting a bad press at the start of lockdown.
“Technology is at the frontend delivering solutions that enable progress across a host of sectors. When you go to any site, the number of meetings is immense. There’s a whole gaggle of professionals such as builders, joiners, plumbers, architects and building inspectors who all need to collaborate together, often from a distance. They are constantly communicating together.”
Shachar Harari, chief business officer & head of Cardo Crew – a provider of global wireless intercom solutions – feels the top priority for construction sites should be to make the work environment safer for employees. If staff get sick, projects could face delays and extra costs.
“Now is the time for sites to re-examine working practices and favour manufacturers that are upgrading their existing equipment to increase safety even further. Construction workers’ safety must be prioritised in the fight against Covid-19 but firms need to accelerate their adoption of technology to make this happen this year and beyond.
“However, this shouldn’t be at the expense of increased productivity. Equipment also needs to be higher in quality and more effective in helping workers get the job done, which is something partners selling into construction companies should keep in mind. By implementing robust and efficient comms technology, construction firms can increase efficiencies and improve on-site safety. Manufacturers now have the opportunity to integrate wireless comms into PPE to enable workers to adapt to the new socially distant, handsfree, Covid-secure working environment, while enhancing productivity.
“At Cardo Crew, we provide wireless mesh communications technology that can specifically help teams exchange complex information quickly, reliably and securely. It operates as a self-sufficient standalone network, is voice-activated and enables two-way conversation at a range of up to 3,000 metres, making it ideal for Covidsecure work environments. The construction industry will only recover from the pandemic if businesses join together in a collaborative effort. It is all about using our experiences to learn from one another and understanding our technology can help firms adapt to ensure work environments are as safe as possible for employees.”
There have been a number of economic, political and social factors affecting the industry, according to Lee Jones, head of manufacturer solutions at NBS. The company provides an integrated global platform for everyone involved in the design, supply and construction of the built environment. He said, “The dominance of Brexit uncertainty led to an increase in product prices, and concerns regarding Covid-19 shut down building and manufacturing sites for a number of weeks. But one notable area of success was in the design and specification sector, with most designers and specifiers adapting to ‘working from home’. Almost all of them had to switch to cloud-based software solutions to do their jobs overnight. As a result NBS saw a 350% uptake in subscriptions of our cloud-based specification tools throughout this period.”
Steve Breen, general manager of construction at Finning UK & Ireland, the exclusive distributor of Caterpillar machines, agrees that Brexit negotiations first triggered issues. He said, “This carried over into 2020 with a slowdown in sales in January and February by around 16 per cent. Then Covid brought the country and the plant industry to a virtual standstill in April and May. As the country and the construction sector has learned to operate under new conditions, we have seen some reasonable activity over the summer, but expectations are for the year to end significantly down by around 35 per cent.
“Our focus throughout this uncertain time has been on planning. We want to ensure that we protect our balance sheet from the risk of the business downturn and the pressure on our customers’ business but also to ensure we can still meet the demand for machines and services where required.”
What is selling well?
Sacke says construction is an industry that remains profoundly dependent on paperbased and manual processes that are inherently inefficient and prone to error. He points out how large-scale projects in particular, typically take 20 per cent longer to finish and can be up to 80 per cent over budget with traditional methods.
“The adoption of digitalcollaboration solutions is already significantly improving processes in the industry, positively impacting supplychain orders and progress reports. Cloud-based software as a service applications have risen in popularity as a result of the availability of lower cost wireless connectivity and ensures the efficiency and mobility of the construction team.”
Konftel’s May feels collaboration and conferencing has really shown how useful it can be. “People can’t travel and chat through projects in the way they used to. It’s much more remote now. A natural way to get the job done without being there, connecting multiple parties together is by conferencing.
“A lot of people are having to reach out to new suppliers and contacts but they can’t do this in person. Clear communication and good tools have been a big benefit. They can share documents, look at plans and ensure jobs can be completed, saving lots of time too.”
Jones from NBS is keen to point out how Covid has accelerated many widescale changes. “Product building materials have seen an uptick in sales where available. Some manufacturers have resorted to stockpiling six months’ worth of products, and as a result their business is now booming while their competitors are trying to facilitate orders with limited production runs.
“Digital process services are doing extremely well. Many manufacturers, while being unproductive through the lockdown, have saved on travel expenses and marketing budgets. Innovation and new ways of thinking are taking priority to help the sector accelerate recovery.
“There is an increased adoption of digital tools to virtually ‘hyper-collaborate’ and share information. We are clearly entering a new normal. Digital was changing things slowly and had started to gain more momentum through legislative changes. But the Covid pandemic has accelerated those changes.”
The technology available to construction firms has advanced rapidly, says Sacke from Comms365. “We are now starting to see examples of how advances in digital technology can deliver efficiency and productivity opportunities at the start of all projects. [This will] truly revolutionise the construction sites of the past.
“Drones, robotics, 3D printing and augmented reality are no longer works of fiction but can be adopted by forward thinking firms looking to capitalise on the benefits that embracing innovation can bring to the construction site. All of these innovations require high quality, reliable internet network resources to function and deliver benefit in the field.”
In a major step forward, Cardo Crew launched its new mesh communication solution this year, that could transform Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and dramatically improve communications and safety. Harari explained, “The Cardo Crew PRO-1 is a lightweight mesh communication module that fits inside PPE such as helmets and ear guards. It is designed for PPE manufacturers to introduce team communication to busy, noisy, or hazardous environments, making it ideal for the construction industry, where communication is vital in managing risk, preventing work-related incidents, and improving on-site safety.
“According to the Health and Safety Executive’s 2019 UK statistics, the rate of non-fatal injuries to construction workers has risen for the first time in five years, showing there is still room to improve health and safety in the industry. By targeting the construction sector with its latest communication technology, Cardo Crew aims to help PPE manufacturers keep workers safe by providing robust and efficient comms, which is crucial when it comes to mitigating risk and accidents.”
He added, “The PRO-1 launch follows a successful H1 2020 for Cardo Crew, securing new OEM partnerships in Europe and the Middle East in both civil and military PPE markets. Cardo Crew has also launched a new PROmesh mobile app for efficient management of its PRO-1 device, providing rapid set up of an intercom network from anywhere and real-time control of preferences.
“We believe there is a real need for hands-free communication for dynamic teams working in notoriously noisy, hazardous environments at relatively close distances, which is why we are targeting the construction market. Given the increasing rate of incidents in the sector, it’s clear that there is still work to be done to ensure safer working practices. “That’s why we’re excited to introduce our latest technology into the sector via OEMs, so we can improve communication, safety and workflow for construction companies.”
Jones believes that social distancing, outdoor space redesign and the need to work remotely, will accelerate new product developments. “Who would have thought that hand sanitising stations or Perspex guards in shops would have been in such demand this year? I don’t think we have seen the last of the changes.”
Jones added, “People have been stockpiling, leading to product shortages. This is the same scenario when it was very hard to source bricks after the last recession. We have seen a smaller scale equivalent of this now. You only have to look at your local DIY store to see what’s missing on shelves for an indication.”
Breen from Finning pointed out, “We’re seeing a lot of customers unable to commit to capital expenditure, either because of project delays, economic uncertainty or cash flow issues. However, we are starting to see some activity, especially in plant hire sales.”
Sacke has a more upbeat outlook. He said, “Innovations in digital technology are fostering change and unlocking significant potential improvements in operational processes for the construction industry across the globe. At every level, from the conceptual design all the way through to the physical construction and continued upkeep of the building, new digital devices, applications and methodologies are starting to prove their worth.
“Some of the most forwardthinking organisations are seeing the full value and opportunities that investing in innovative digital technology can provide from day one, and are leading the way in revolutionising how construction sites operate.”
Top tips and digitalisation
Breen thinks that as an industry it needs to learn to live and work with Covid. “The changes we’ve already seen in our working practices are set to become established and typical in the long term. Although we can’t completely replace the face-to-face contact with colleagues and customers, there is a lot of work that can be done through Teams and firms across the country are proving that they can make remote working, working from home, work for them.
“I can also see on-site working schedules becoming more fluid and dispersed over multiple shifts to allow for social distancing, remote working and a better home life balance. Through digitisation we’re able to support this move already. We are fully set up to monitor the performance and activity of machines 24 hours a day. It’s clear that technology and innovation has accelerated in the past six months as a result of Covid and it will be interesting to see what innovation results in the next three years.”
Jones highlighted, “Invest in digital and provide personalised solutions to address your clients’ needs. Right now the need to access solutions while working remotely is in demand. Cloudbased product listing solutions are proving to be a solid solution.
“Historically, emergency situations such as disasters, war, pandemics are what have accelerated innovation and change. This pandemic has been no different. People are adjusting to the new normal. Having a flexible team that can work remotely and more efficiently provides a happier more loyal workforce while reducing business overheads.
“Digital was slowly changing things pre-pandemic. We then witnessed a mix bag of fast changers and those that ground to a halt, though most businesses showed resilience and adapted quickly. For example, overnight everyone at NBS was working from home during March when the first lockdown was announced. People can adapt, often easily, it’s just getting them to do this that can be challenging.
“The proof is in the numbers. The next few years are going to be interesting, particularly with the planned building regulation changes coming in 2023, bringing more safety compliance into the construction sector.”
The construction industry has been experiencing a steady flow of work which is set to remain consistent until the Covid crisis eases. That’s the view of building inspector Ashley Thompson who has been working in the industry for 16 years. Thompson said the current turmoil is not as bad as the banking crisis of a decade ago.
Thompson, a senior project manager for Liverpool-based Assent Building Control offered a valuable insight into the sector. “Things have been picking up again. After the lockdown lag the industry has started to blossom with some projects getting the green light that were initially put on hold.”
He continued, “We specialise in education, high rise residential and health care including care homes amongst other construction works such as office fit outs and industrial projects. When lockdown was lifted and we entered the summer months, things really began to improve. Obviously the warmer weather was a big factor as you can build a lot easier. I think the next six months are likely to be consistent rather than spectacular.”
Thompson said the role of technology is a major factor in the industry. “It’s become considerably more flexible. You are not always expected to be in the office or onsite and there’s a lot more meetings via video and sharing documents. If anything it’s been a big bonus because it saves a lot of travel time so you can get work done at a more productive rate rather than driving around in your car. You can get more done in less time and I don’t see it ever going fully back to the way it was before. Obviously you’ve still got to meet people onsite and inspect work but hybrid working is here to stay.”
He concluded, “When I first started there was global recession so for a few years it was very tough. There might be a little dip and a few bumps along the way but I don’t see it being as bad this time. Fire safety legislation for example is paramount and associated building works remain high profile too.
“People understand the benefits of technology a lot more than before. Equally there’s a positive environmental impact too because if you’ve not get 10 people all driving to the same location then the planet is gaining as well.”
A revolution in one day!
As was the case with many organisations across the UK, global engineering, management and development consultancy Mott MacDonald transitioned its 8,000 strong UK workforce to home working within just one day.
North West Building Services team leader, Steve Mills, said cloud technology has inspired a proven and effective home working revolution. “Within the space of 24 hours, as the talk of lockdown was coming through, there was clear communication within the company that we all may have to work from home at very short notice. Agile working was taking place already due to the nature of our business but we were all based in an office to some degree, so it was a big step to move away from that.
“We were told that from tomorrow people would need to work from home for the foreseeable future. There was a lot of effort put into advising how we could do that effectively, using our systems remotely to remain just as productive. We already had Office365 for example but there were quite a few challenges moving from an office-based environment to home-based, for some people. Some didn’t have laptops and we also had to ensure there were no elevated security issues working with specific clients such as those in the nuclear industry. Our IT department quickly streamlined all our IT systems for mass working from home and we were also provided with equipment such as chairs and screens where needed, but in general it was a very smooth process.”
Mills highlighted, “The team I manage has seen no impact on performance. We already had the tools to work from anywhere. Our Cloud systems have allowed us to adapt to a new way of working and I don’t envisage most people will be back in the office five days a week. This has proven the belief that some people originally had that we can work from anywhere, the Covid-19 crisis has proven beyond all reasonable doubt it’s possible. We are dealing with a very high workload, just as effectively as before the change happened.”
Mills said companies do need to consider the health and well-being of staff, as ‘it’s not quite the same’ communicating via a screen rather than faceto-face. Mott MacDonald has done this by ensuring teams have regular catch ups and by creating pages on its existing news intranet site containing: updates, resources and links to guidance on aspects ranging from tips for working at home and maintaining information security to advice on childcare and dependant arrangements, health and wellbeing.
Mills concluded, “I think we are moving to a more agile way of working with technology at the forefront. It enables us to have all the connectivity we need, whether that is between people or sharing information. For example we recently collaborated with 190 people on a conference call. We have tremendous access to people simultaneously in ways not possible before. The power of technology is incredible, saving so much time, costs and maintaining effective deployment of widespread resources.”