Why isn’t digital improving productivity?

Three industry experts give their views on the productivity benefits of digital technology and how firms can continue to improve their performance.

From BIM to digital twins, technology has spread rapidly throughout the construction industry. Once new-fangled extras, these digital tools are gradually becoming indispensable.

Yet despite its enormous potential, it’s clear that we’re still a long way from optimising technology. In particular, we’re yet to fully witness how digital technologies could revitalise productivity. And with our industry’s productivity coming under increasing scrutiny, we’re in growing need of it.

We asked three industry experts their thoughts on the productivity benefits of digital technology - and how we can continue to improve.

Noble Francis, economics director of the Construction Products Association

“Productivity is a big issue for construction, and it will only become more important. The UK has a £600bn pipeline of infrastructure projects due by 2028. Housing targets are demanding a 24% increase in house building. These are ambitious goals. 

“Yet construction relies on an aged workforce with the age-demographic peaking between 50 and 65, which means one quarter of the workforce, 500,000+ workers, are likely to retire within 10-15 years. So, we need to build more, with less. 

“And over 40% of contractors already report difficulties hiring. This rises to 70% for many trades. That’s why productivity is so important. By gaining more output per person, we can escape the demographic trap and achieve those ambitious goals.

“But how? 

“There are many approaches to productivity gains, all of which can be optimised by digitalisation. Firstly, through a more diverse workforce. Before the financial crisis of 2008, the proportion of women in construction was growing. Unfortunately, this has stagnated since. Secondly, we can reduce ‘rework’, which accounts for one-fifth of construction. But this requires collaboration and improved planning. Offsite manufacturing also helps but requires greater integration and connectivity. 

“Digitalisation helps across the board. It can change the whole process of construction, turning it into an integrated process with manufactured units assembled into intelligent assets that are maintained and upgraded during their life and then re-used, redistributed, re-manufactured and re-cycled; the circular economy. Construction becomes a process where there’s margin in every part of the process. It enables us to connect intelligently with other stakeholders that are too often isolated in silos. 

“Through BIM, A.I. and digital twins, digitalisation drives efficiencies. When properly applied, they can reduce rework and enable offsite manufacturing; improving productivity.

“The potential gains for the industry - and clients - are massive.”

Lesley Waud, design development director at Atkins

“The good news is that digital is being used in a wide range of applications, from digital project management, to integrated 3D design and digital rehearsal. The bad news is, they’re not joined up. They’re far too isolated. Until they’re properly connected, these digital technologies can’t reach anything like their full potential. 

“First, we need to articulate our objectives and their outcomes. What are we trying to achieve with digitalisation? Next, we must align commercial models with incentivisation. Then, we can collaborate from the outset, joining up those isolated pockets of digital activity. At this point it’s also important to be clear on the information requirements during the whole lifecycle. 

“Once these steps are complete, we can begin standardising, productising, and manufacturing, before we go on-site. This can reduce time on site, but it’s only possible if we know what we’re designing before we begin. Standardisation also has the potential to reduce operational maintenance costs without affecting the quality while also boosting productivity. 

“Digitally rehearsing plans before we get on site can help to deliver exactly according to plan. And finally, on-site, we can use digital to help teams execute projects accurately. 

“Too often, consultants and contractors end up like Tom and Jerry. By connecting disparate processes into a single workflow, digital can make sure that we all work towards the same goal - rather than playing cat and mouse.”

Dan Rossiter, sector lead for digital transformation in the built environment at BSI

“To predict how digital transformation will impact productivity growth, we need to understand productivity and standards, as standards can be attributed to 37.4% (Economic benefits of standards – research report) of UK productivity growth. This growth isn’t necessarily related to the standards themselves; it’s the consistency, rigour and translatability of good practice that applies to processes and technologies. 

“When trying to improve productivity, we effectively have two options: decreasing effort, or increasing quality. Adhering to standardised good practice can help us do both.

“Improving Products: Around London in the early 1900s there were over 75 different tram gauges in use. For manufacturers, this prevented their products from being able to operate across the network. One of the first British Standards (BS 2) helped to bring the number of tram gauges down to 5. This, in turn, enabled manufacturers to sell across the wider network and internationally, as other countries, such as India, had also adopted the same standards, creating an export market.

“Decreasing Effort: Nowadays standards exist for a myriad of things such as: naming files (BS EN ISO 19650-2), managing document management systems (BS EN 82045-2), managing quality management (BS EN ISO 9001) as well as producing reports, drawings and schedules (BS 8888). These standards can streamline the amount of effort needed to undertake tasks. In addition, adopting these standards may also reduce the time to train new employees (typically 18 months) as they may already be familiar with these conventions. 

“Businesses which adopt these standards enable shorter probation periods, as well as streamlined business processes. These changes can have ripple effects across the industry, as it enables us to connect faster with new starters, new clients, new partners and our supply chain. And that can only be a good thing.”

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.