Bottom line profitability impacted by technology or Not yet ?
Construction has been one of the slowest industries to adopt technology. That is partly cultural—folks in the industry like to solve problems with their own ingenuity. Many firms are still family owned, and there is still a lot of reverence for tradition. Finally, this is an industry with thin margins, where the first funding priorities are equipment and personnel.
But, it is also partly because there has not been a lot of technology built to meet the needs of the industry. Before smart phones, it was hard to bring technology to the field. Even then, you had to have a good Wi-Fi connection, which was not consistently available or an expensive data plan. And, a lot of early field capture technology was based on someone having to manually input data into a device. That was a non-starter; having superintendents manually entering data did not really provide much in the way of productivity gains, and made for a lot of unhappy superintendents.
Now all that is changing. Founders are aging out of the industry, creating an opportunity for younger generations to apply technology with less resistance. Project owners are requiring the use of different technologies as a condition of funding. And, there are an increasing number of great solutions specifically designed for the industry. Connectivity and computing power have increased dramatically, making mobile applications a lot more reliable, robust and user-friendly. Cameras, drones, and GPS technology are making it easy to capture data without human intervention.
As more technology comes into play, the industry is finally waking up to the impact it can have on bottom line profitability. Here are some of the technology opportunities construction companies should have on their radar:
AR and VR
Whether it is on a computer screen or through a headset, augmented and virtual reality is taking the output of BIM software and creating virtual models of a structure subcontractors can walk through before it is even built, allowing them to collaborate and spot potential issues in a virtual environment. AR can also be used to help train workers in a more effective and cost-efficient manner.
AI: Not Yet
Artificial intelligence could potentially have a big impact on the industry, but probably not for quite a few years. One immediate application is job site safety. There are already rudimentary tools that can analyze video from job site cameras and spot hazards. They can also determine from workers’ movements whether or not they are accessing a scaffold or carrying materials up a flight of stairs correctly.
Eventually, AI could be used to help improve project scheduling by learning from data from past projects and flagging issues that could lead to delays. It could analyze the performance of buildings over time and offer materials recommendations. But AI needs relevant data to learn from, so the industry needs to digitize first.
Back Office Efficiency
Most firms are using some sort of automated accounting platform. But there are still gaps that need to be filled. Invoice routing and approval is a big one. People are literally having the back office scan invoices and then email out invoice images to the project superintendent. Invoice images are digital paper, meaning they are not actual digital artifacts. Any data that is on them has to be manually entered, and the whole routing and approval process is manual as well.
Then there is the payment process itself. Solutions built to handle procure to pay actually only handle procure to invoice approval, so then you need a payments automation solution on top of that. The good news is that automating payments is pretty easy to do, and it does not depend on automating the invoice workflow, which is a much bigger project.
Most ERP systems offer tons of reports, but people want to combine that with data from other sources. They want to be able to look at the data three-dimensionally and be able to drill into it. ERP systems do not have that kind of capability, and as the amount of data companies have access to grows, so does the need to have a business intelligence platform to pull it together and generate analyses and models. Tracecost is tackling these challenges and compiling all information on one platform.
There are a lot of challenges to overcome before construction becomes a fully digitized industry. It is still hard to deploy technology organization-wide when you have workers on multiple job sites. Adoption can move pretty slowly, with some workers using the technology and others holding to traditional practices, resulting in the industry overall heading in the right direction of the benefits, even if it is not happening at a rapid pace.