Construction was one of the first industries that returned to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The key to the sector bouncing back to full strength will be adaptations, not just to PPE and health and safety, but to improved ways of working too.
Modern construction technologies can help in the short-term with improved productivity and, in the long term, encourage more young people to the sector to address its skills gap. Here, Gareth Randle, sector specialist at R&D tax credit consultancy ForrestBrown, examines a roadmap to innovation in UK construction.
Lockdown has swiftly revolutionised how we work; it has exposed the vitally important role that technology plays across all industries – including construction. More construction firms than ever before have found new, agile and innovative ways for their workforce to be able to plan, design, build and deliver.
Construction firms who had invested in technology before the pandemic are likely far more financially robust and resilient today than those still using outdated construction methods and techniques. That’s not to say that traditional techniques will disappear completely. The industry looks likely to split into two areas – boutique services for more traditional and artisan skills, and mega projects where repetitive designs and processes take place.
The pace at which tech companies are moving into the sector with a raft of innovative solutions is mind-blowing, but it is those construction businesses who can see opportunity to leverage these exciting developments who will truly stay ahead of the game. Examples include using GPS-based apps and wearables to help with social distancing and safety on site, exoskeleton vests to aid with health and safety, drone surveys, IOT sensors giving real-time feedback on building and material performance, robots that can operate in small, confined or dangerous spaces, plastic roads, modular builds, reuse of materials, digital twinning and beyond.
To realise the dream, an issue that must be resolved is trust. For a long time, many construction firms have been setting themselves up for a fall by not sharing experiences and knowledge with one another when those perceived competitive barriers are out of touch. What’s more, there is little cohesion or consistency when it comes to selecting a unified method of working across the various disciplines in the sector. For example, some companies may be fully BIM-integrated, whilst some may still be using incompatible file formats or even freehand drawing. The system is fragmented and needs to change – we need to find a common format using just one common language that people can adopt, and find ways to either incentivise or drive down the costs of adoption.
However, many construction firms don’t feel ready to revolutionise the workplace, as they’re already working to tight budgets and margins. And yet, if they can innovate now, and invest in the right skillsets, then they can future proof themselves even as economic storm clouds gather.
The government’s R&D tax incentives can provide construction firms with the funding needed to embrace cutting-edge technologies. Like machine learning and automation, which will see many repetitive low-skill jobs on site replaced, and existing job roles adapted to become more fluid, efficient and dynamic. The industry therefore needs to recruit from a broader talent pool which should include tech-savvy problem solvers. That will reposition the sector as a desirable career to attract the right talent by highlighting the changing face of the industry.