Not a week goes by without an article being published describing the productivity challenges facing the Construction sector. Developments over the past 10 or 20 years, comparison with other industries, comparison between countries ... observers put forward figures to paint a picture that is, for the least, pessimistic on the sector's situation in this regard.
Take for example these two fairly representative statistics of how productivity in construction is analysed:
- - A cumulative 19% decline in productivity since 2001.*
- - A cumulative productivity differential of 127% compared to Industry since 1995.*
If these figures raise the issue of the need for the sector to find new sources of productivity, it is questionable if they accurately reflect the reality of players in the sector. Can we measure the productivity of a building site in the same way as in Industry and is there a way to compare the figures of two environments that operate in such different ways? One key criterion often seems underestimated in the analyses carried out on the subject and that is the UNIQUE character of the Construction sector.
What are the characteristics that make the Construction sector so unique and how, given these characteristics, can digital technology give productivity leverage during the implementation phase of a project?
To begin with, each team is unique on a construction project
Where in Industry teams remain broadly stable over time, making it possible to set up repeatable and optimised methods and processes, in Construction, teams are made up of different contractors who meet on-site usually for the first and last time and only come together for the duration of a common project. They are together for a fixed term. Applying the logic of industrialisation and optimisation in terms of productivity is difficult as interactions in the field are limited to a few days, weeks or a few months at most. For that reason only, comparisons with industry on the development of productivity seem somewhat skewed.
Each construction project is a "one shot"
the specifications, the objectives, but also the constraints in managing the construction of a 4-star hotel in the centre of a big city and the construction of a hypermarket in an out-of-town shopping area are very different. The teams, even if they work for the same contractor, will therefore neither work in the same way nor approach these two projects similarly. The construction of each building, each work or each infrastructure is thus a unique operation, closer to the prototype than the industrial approach. This is why it is difficult to try to industrialise the way work is done on construction sites and, in the field, creativity and adaptability are still the watchwords. Every day, teams must reinvent the way they carry out their tasks, respond to unanticipated events and correct errors. Obviously, they need to conform to the requirements of quality, safety and effectiveness demanded by the contractor and its customers!
Digital solutions are now one of the most effective means to support this requirement for everyday creativity. Firstly, they can enable operational teams to provide information to the people on-site, especially if there are sticking points, defects or deviations. Secondly, they can help facilitate exchanges with the appropriate people, even off-site, to find solutions to resolve or work around problems.
Finally, the context of each project is unique
Obviously, the conditions under which a construction project proceeds are never the same from one project to another. But often, they also vary on a given project. How is it possible to keep to schedule and aim for higher productivity when your site is subject to weather conditions, or when red tape, theft or damage are slowing the progress of work? On the other hand, there are few sectors in which the stakeholders are subjected to such a diversity of constraints in achieving their mission: outdoor work, work at height, in a basement, or in isolated environments, in urban settings, etc. There are so many different contexts that need to be factored in, in terms of safety, legislation or logistics which, again, make it difficult to apply industrial models to construction projects.
Teams are therefore required to be flexible and must rely on digital tools that allow them to quickly adapt to constantly changing situations. Need to change teams, involve new business partners, share new documents, use a new version of the plans, implement new procedures, consider a new legal constraint: all this should not curb the activity of the project and should not impact productivity. Contractors wishing to rely on digital solutions in order to boost productivity are therefore well advised to focus on solutions that deliver maximum customisation and offer maximum autonomy in this aspect.
Digital solutions are now the ideal option for construction professionals who wish to maintain the profit margins of their projects or increase the productivity rate in the works phase. The key to success? Deploying customisable and mobile solutions that take into account the specific characters of the Construction trades and user experience, by facilitating adoption by the maximum number of people. The adoption of digital technology by on-site teams has improved in recent years and is expected to accelerate in the future: within 2 years, apprentices arriving on sites will have been born after the arrival of the first iPhone!
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*: source XERFI - Observatoire Construction Tech | 2018 Observatoire Construction Tech