24 January 2024
By Ben Milner, Project Manager, and Bahadir V Barbarosoglu, Program Manager
It is a known issue that the construction industry is slow to adopt new practices and emerging technologies. The first 3D-modelling tools were launched in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that they began to be used on projects; GPS technology was invented in 1973, but it wouldn’t be seen on site for more than 20 years.
Yet there is continuous evolution in processes, ideas and tools that can aid in building better projects and helping them to run smoothly. This doesn’t necessarily mean a computer program or a gadget – it might be as simple as a folder structure, workflow, or even a set of prompts for addressing conflicts.
As projects become larger and more complex, it’s ever more important that we take advantage of innovations of all kinds to improve efficiency, quality and safety. But we also need to recognize that implementing technology can be a double-edged sword, and identify the barriers in order to break through them.
Ask a project manager why construction is slow to implement new technologies and they will very often talk about cost. There’s the initial purchase or licensing costs, but also the cost and time that must be devoted to training, and the loss of efficiency as everyone gets used to the new process.
Another barrier to early adoption is that the price of a technology is generally highest when it is new to market, becoming more affordable over time. When the first flatscreen TV was launched in 1997, it cost $15,000. Today, you can pick up a model of the same size for $200. Construction is not a high-margin industry, so it follows that it would not be among the first to implement expensive innovations.
But perhaps the most significant stumbling blocks are to do with humans themselves. It is well understood that people do not adapt well to rapid change, and applying new skills takes more time, effort and energy than carrying out familiar tasks. There is a common misperception that all technological advances solve problems. But there are many instances when implementing new technology fails to address the underlying problem, or creates more confusion. Some solutions may support collaboration; others can leave team members isolated.
Construction is a very varied working environment, with many team members moving from one project to the next, to fresh set of challenges. This creates a constant need for creativity. This is not something people typically associate with construction, and yet it’s everywhere you look. Crane positioning, schedule adjustments, activity sequencing and safety protocols are just a few examples of the creative problem-solving that we see every day on site. Automation can introduce efficiencies, but it can also diminish opportunities for creative thinking, with negative impacts on projects and people.
So, if we want to successfully implement emerging technologies or practices, it’s essential that we address the human aspects, place people first and foremost, and ensure that we don’t create new problems.
Solving complex problems in new ways is an ongoing process, and it takes time, patience and cooperation. Above all, take care of your team. As leaders in the project controls sector , we can be the catalyst for change – but they are the driving force for delivery.
This insight was crafted by Ben Milner and Bahadir V Barbarosoglu, who are members of our project delivery team in the Americas. If you'd like to learn more about our presence in this key region, with details of our offices and local leads, please click here.