Vertical Horizon: Channel in… Manufacturing and Construction

The headlines in the construction sector are about ensuring effective communication with building sites and adoption of technology to provide solutions whereas in manufacturing the importance of the network is rapidly emerging along with AI and the more ‘traditional’ needs such as collaborative working and UC.

A snapshot of the current state of the UK Manufacturing and Construction sectors reveals an almost polar state of a affairs.

Britain’s construction industry ‘dropped like a stone’ in June this year to record its worst monthly performance in more than 10 years as firms blamed the Brexit crisis for a lack of new work.
Housebuilders joined civil engineering firms and commercial building contractors to warn that a wait-and-see approach to commissioning projects across the public and private sectors had hit the industry.

Most construction firms reported they were retaining staff to be ready for a conclusion to the Brexit talks but, in the meantime, the general slowdown in the economy and the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal was dampening demand.

The IHS Markit/Cips construction purchasing managers’ index (PMI) plunged to 43.1, the lowest reading since April 2009 when the country was gripped by the global financial crisis. A PMI figure below 50 shows the sector has contracted.

Tim Moore, an associate director at IHS Markit, said the deepening political and economic uncertainty were the main reasons cited by construction companies for the fastest drop in total construction output since April 2009. “While the scale of the downturn is in no way comparable with that seen during the global financial crisis (when the index plunged below 30), the abrupt loss of momentum in 2019 has been the worst experienced across the sector for a decade.”

Amidst this doom and gloom there is some light, whist we are still going around in circles over Brexit there is news that employment in the sector has held up as there is optimism surrounding a pick-up in business once ‘Brexit is sorted’.

GenieBelt, a provider of real-time construction management software and mobile app, provide a guide on how to ensure good communication on a construction site and say that good communication is an essential component of success on construction projects, and it plays a decisive role in saving both time and money during the building process. Their tips include:

1. Devices and Technology. It is important to use up-to-date digital solutions which allow you to communicate with the other members of the team regardless of the type of device you are using.
2. Reinforce. Convey messages in different ways to ensure better understanding.
3. Chain of command. Establish clear lines of communication and chain of command for messages and information.
4. Quality and upgrades. Use document software that tracks revisions in all stages of the project and with all stakeholders.
5. Connections. Ensure the proper connections and functioning networks are available even in very remote sites.

Gamma says, IT and telecoms remain a key challenge for the sector, particularly for newly established projects. More building, more new sites, more need for easily manageable and mobile communications.

“For connecting with architects, planners, sub-contractors, suppliers, staffing, estate agents and head office. Usually before ground is broken and always before infrastructure is laid.

Making the move to cloud communications has been key to driving operational success in the sector. With flexibility and mobility the focus to support the needs of a changing workforce, keeping vital staff in touch on site wherever they are is of paramount importance and all on one number.”

Leicester based Dalys provide specialist services to the construction sector and says, “As a supplier of construction phone systems, we provide solutions to construction companies. We have experience of being involved with house builders who required CCTV coverage on sites which were subject to regular break-ins and thefts, to civil engineering companies who require connectivity on major road-building and major construction projects.”

Manufacturing:

International Engineering firm Corrotherm says that there’s no denying that manufacturing plays an important role in the UK, particularly when it comes to the country’s economy.

“It’s a huge, high-value area of employment – according to a report released in April 2018, The True Impact of UK Manufacturing, it directly accounts for 9% of the UK’s GDP and provides 2.6 million jobs, which is bigger than the financial services industry for context. The report also reflects on the indirect impact of the manufacturing industry – which includes those businesses that are within the supply chain – and the statistics rise to 15% of the UK economy and over five million jobs.”

Tata Communications believes that for today’s manufacturing sector, connectivity is critical.

“Real-time supply chains and logistics require seamless data exchange and collaboration at every step. And, as manufacturers look to machine learning, AI and robotics, the need for a network that can enable this new environment is becoming increasingly urgent.”

Tata is looking to SD-WAN solutions for the manufacturing sites of the future.

“Legacy WANs are simply not fit for purpose – and transforming the WAN is seen as a complex and costly challenge. Here’s where SD-WAN can help take the sting out of the transition.”

Daisy, who has worked extensively with Mitel in developing solutions for the manufacturing sector, says there is a significant disconnect in some organisations between the uses of technology in alignment with core businesses objectives.

Daisy polled UK manufacturing businesses both small (less than 500 employees) and large (500+ employees) to find out their priorities, concerns, insights and plans for embracing digital technologies, unified communications (UC) strategies, Industry 4.0, Big Data, automation and the creation of smart factories.

Their report concludes; “To become a true digital business, an organisation needs to adopt an ‘always on’ infrastructure, supported by an agile workforce which is always fully connected and protected. In this way, unified communications enable seamless information sharing, knowledge gathering, collaboration and productivity.”

Whilst this could be said of most industry sectors it does go to prove that the manufacturing sector is switched on to achieving Digital Transformation and all that goes with it.

Looking wider afield, where is the disruption coming from?

Digital Disruption is all around… how is it impacting this particular vertical and how can the Channel react?

Anton Le Saux at Zest4 says the construction industry is like every other in the digital age, and digital disruption is everywhere.

“Whilst the smaller organisations may be slower on the uptake, I see the world’s key players taking advantage of the digital age in many areas.

There is an expectation that all new builds will be smarter, in order to deliver a smart building, the construction companies must start to use smarter technology.

Construction companies can go online now for building design, modelling and project management. It is now possible to create structures and solutions to problems that would have been difficult to conceive without a digital solution.

3D printing capabilities will no doubt have a big impact for both manufacturing and construction. Why send a design laid out on paper when you could deliver a 3D model? Being able to physically show the space before construction, and therefore mitigating any issues that may arise.

We are also seeing drones playing a part in project management and for the scoping of potential solutions. Which leads into to the realms of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). Whilst I have not been directly involved in this tech, I see a massive upside to using it in the construction space. The ability to hold up a tablet or mobile device and be able to show the client what their building will look like over the top of the construction site in front of you, these are the tools that the industry needs.

Wearable tech, like cameras, smart helmets and tracking devices enable construction companies to keep on top of the work sites, tracking progress and addressing issues in real time.

But all this technology requires underlying tech to make it all work; smartphones, tablets and connectivity. This is where the channel comes in as it’s our bread and butter.”

Which products and services are selling well?

Le Saux says that tablets and smartphones will always sell but they are also seeing the connectivity solutions selling well as these are critical to success.

“This is where Zest4 are strong and we can share that with the channel. We offer a basic connectivity solution for fast-start or temporary sites. Giving instant connectivity allowing a site to become operational within 10 minutes with full connectivity to be able to carry out all of the required comms needs, from calls to data and sending critical pieces of information.

Zest4 also offers a fully bonded and secure solution. For additional bandwidth we have devices that will take four different network SIMs and fully bond them together to create additional throughput and bandwidth. The biggest sites with the biggest data requirements are covered.

For the sites that are rural and have next to no service, we have a device that amplifies the signal available and makes it possible to operate in areas where a normal device, smartphone or tablet has no chance.

Offering these solutions to the construction industry is critical and will always save time and prove extremely cost effective.”

John McKindland, Head of Solution Sales at Nimans, points to two-way radios making the biggest impact for them, especially those integrated into wider comms platforms.

“Push to talk radios can become a SIP extension which in the construction industry is perfect and demand is growing.”

Are there new products on the horizon?

Anton Le Saux is sure we will see a significant influx of new products hit this space.

“The current take-up of digital solutions is still low so as this grows and the demand for new services and solutions grows, developers will continue to innovate. I see this coming in the form of AI.”

John McKindland at Nimans says new products are continually being developed.

“For example we are trialling a special interface between a PABX and two-way radios. This opens-up new functionality such as call reporting and also recording.”

John McKindland, Head of Solution Sales at Nimans

Is AI having an impact upon either of these sectors?

Anton Le Saux read an article earlier in the year where AI was described as the ‘Construction Technology’s Final Frontier’.

“Whilst most robots are programmed to run a series of defined tasks repetitively, AI algorithms are designed to ‘think’; they problem-solve, learn, adapt and use reasoning.

For construction, AI can compare millions of potential options within a project, something that would take humans years, monitor video footage or photographs and learn to recognise risks within both data and real-life situations. Imagine having a programme looking out for signs of fatigue in construction site workers, this is where AI’s capability comes in to its own.”

McKindland at Nimans says for now we are not seeing any major impact with AI especially in the construction industry.

What are the major considerations for partners wanting to enter and succeed in this vertical?

Le Saux firmly believes that the Internet of Things is a total game changer for the construction industry.

“The ability for us to be able to control our thermostats, lights and locks via the cloud enables architects and designers to think creatively about the makeup of our homes and workplaces and, importantly, how differently we might use them in the future. Combine this with the power it brings to the architects, designers and builders in this industry and the market becomes massive.

For a partner the key consideration is what can they offer today versus what they will be able to offer in the future, I don’t expect channel partners to be able to do everything, but then I also don’t expect contractors, developers or specialist AI businesses to be able to offer the connectivity required. The key will be to work together with specialists from each area to deliver what we do best alongside our new partners.”

McKindland at Nimans thinks some resellers need to broaden their skills sets especially with two-way radios because there are some lucrative opportunities out there.

“There are many building infrastructure projects on-going, either with or without government support. Push to talk radios with PABX integration has much broader appeal too such as stadiums, mass-site security and transport sectors.

Ed says…

The construction sector is still in a Brexit limbo with no decisions being made on future projects whilst reports on the manufacturing sector indicate that it has been underestimated in terms of its value to the UK economy. For the channel there are still sales opportunities in both sectors.

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine