Digitizing Construction: Beyond the Hashtags
Is digital transformation just the latest ‘it’ thing?
“The EPC industry is a paradox!”
Being WRENCH’s Chief Technology Officer has been a wild ride. Not just because I work with the best and brightest in the field, like my friend and colleague KV Daniel (a burning live-wire who sees digital technology as the cure for most post-industrial ills) but because the EPC industry is a wonderfully-absurd paradox.
EPC is (and has always been) technology-driven, yet it is the least open to technology changes. It is governed by market trends, yet distrusting of them. It is conservative and pragmatic, yet driven by imaginations. It is risk-averse and more than a little skeptical, yet populated by some of the most ardent idealists and dreamers I’ve ever met. These are people who built fairytale cities on bare sand and turned deserts into lush playgrounds and when it comes to What Could Be and Why Not? I have yet to meet a more starry-eyed crew. Here’s what gets me: surrounded by the latest technological wonders and talk of Mars landings, I’ve had to watch clients struggle with spreadsheets and emails and couriers and ‘low bandwidth’! So, EPC’s push towards Digital Transformation is long overdue. WAY long overdue, to borrow from millennial slang. And for that reason (among many) I’m thrilled to finally get my teeth into real cutting-edge technology for the EPC sector.
Some things I’m particularly looking forward to:
- Synergy not just collaboration, across engineering, procurement, and construction, driven by user-forward interfaces and applications, linked by the worldwide web, accessed by smart phones and smart devices. A real ‘constructive’ organism!
- Leveraging Big data and analytics as a proactive business driver, building ways to leverage old data to predict and prevent problems and to make better business decisions. Intelligence built INTO the system, not just driving it.
- More control, less surprises. Remote-controlled processes at every stage of the project lifecyle (via sensors and drones and similar equipment), replacing human overseeing with human-managed digital overseeing. Less risk to human life and limbs, less risk to business outcomes.
- AI and machine-learning based planning and forecasting. (Ah, so much to say on this subject, so little time).
- Model-based prototyping to ensure fastest time to market, eliminating rework and reforecasting. Obvious benefits, yet so skimpily explored. (But this I think will be the easiest bridge to cross because it caters directly to engineering mindsets.)
Each of the above deserves its own white paper but for now I’ll limit myself to a few summary observations on what a digitally-transformed engineering/construction organisation would look like, (minus the hype).
Smarter. Leaner. Faster.
A digital organisation is faster and leaner. Cool! We know that. We’ve known it since ‘lean engineering’ in the past century and the first automated assembly line. But how is it smarter? In today’s lingo, ‘smart’ means better decision-making supported by agile thinking and accurate data, and proactive planning and forecasting supported by automated fail-safes and contingency plans. So, companies with even a minor level of digitization are smarter than they were before. It seems logical to say that Digitisation, correctly applied, makes people smarter. It won’t change human nature but it will give more people more opportunities to be smarter – the ones who choose to be, at any rate.
More profitable, more scalable.
More precision and less ‘humanity’ may not be a good thing in social terms. But it is, for projects and businesses based on projects. By definition, digital = more profitable and by the same token, digital = more scalable. At both the macro and micro levels, the simple act of eliminating human effort from routine everyday tasks and putting it where it belongs (discovery and ideating and creative problem-solving) seems to me a worthy end in itself, regardless of the (inevitable) hike in profitability and productivity and other business benefits.
Less vulnerable to market vagaries.
EPC is a highly vulnerable industry. Ironic, really. It changes the shape of the world and to a great extent, culture also, it is a major economy driver on a national and global scale, yet it is deeply vulnerable to every ebb and flow in that world, culture, and economy. Digitisation eliminates at least one of the factors causing that vulnerability.
Still, I have to wonder; the industry is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the digital era but does it know WHY? Does it know of the benefits in store beyond the paint-by-numbers spiel about higher efficiency and cost-savings and automating this, that, and the other? Does it know what lies beyond the formulae and mantras? I can’t wait for it to find out.
Dear EPC company getting started on your digital transformation journey: there’s more to it than marketing buzzwords and IT hype. There’s more behind it than competitive pressure and bandwagon-jumping. The ‘digital’ refers to more than machines, the ‘transformation’ to more than change.