‘Digitization is all about people’

Computers designing, 3D printers and robots building? Is that what a digital construction firm will look like? Yes, in due course, maintains Arjen Adriaanse, Professor of Construction Process Integration & ICT. But there’s still an awful lot of steps to be taken first. ‘So get your staff involved in the digitization of the construction process now.’  

December 21, 2018

The specialist in how the BIM philosophy can be implemented and used in the construction and infrastructure sector deems it ‘extremely fun and important to stress the human and organizational side of digitization’.

Arjen Adriaanse started his career as a Civil Engineering student, worked as an organizational consultant in medium-sized and large construction firms, and carried out his doctoral research at the University of Twente as well as Stanford University in the United States. Just over two years ago he switched from being BIM Programme Manager at a construction firm to working for consultancy and engineering firm Arcadis. He currently holds the position of Director Digital Strategy & Digital Business for Europe there, being responsible for such things as BIM and information management. Which combines perfectly with his professorship in Construction Process Integration & ICT at the University of Twente.

Together with six PhD students, he is carrying out research at the University of Twente into how digital developments permeate the construction process and the construction chain. ‘ICT isn’t the sole focus of my research. What we are looking at is the combination of this technology with human and organizational aspects. And there’s a good reason for this. A parallel can be drawn here with the previous industrial revolution: it wasn’t just companies that didn’t go along with this revolution that went out of business, but also companies that simply introduced machinery without revising their way of working. I’m anticipating that things will pan out similarly in the digital revolution.’

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Mature

If you’re talking about digitization in construction, then BIM will be your starting point. Arjen first came into contact with ‘Building Information Modelling’ around 2002. Back then, experiences of it in practice were suboptimal, but he has seen huge progress since that time. ‘In a BIM maturity study that we carried out in my academic capacity, it turned out that civil engineering and non-residential construction firms score highly. Major construction firms have been active with BIM for quite some time, have internal innovation programmes and training programmes, and recognize that digital construction will save them time and money.’

On the other hand, minor construction firms, installation engineers and suppliers have usually made less progress. Making things tricky, because every party in the construction chain has his part to play. And within the compass of a digital construction process everyone has to be in a position to join in to be able to collaborate supported by digital solutions.’

And clients? Arjen: ‘There are significant differences there too, but generally speaking they’re less advanced.’ Which is logical, thinks the professor, due to their position in the construction chain. ‘Digital working started in the design phase, with work preparation and implementation following thereafter. But now that BIM is being used more in management and maintenance, clients will be able to fit in better with it. Once they’re asking to use BIM, then we’ll definitely see the digitization of the construction process accelerate.’

Sacred cows

‘Digitization is not something to be limited to a couple of people in your company, like “third door on the right for the BIM guys”’, stresses Arjen. ‘If you really want to benefit, then BIM will need to be utilized throughout the construction company.’ And straight away that’s one of the biggest challenges in the sector, he acknowledges. Plenty of sacred cows are going to get sacrificed. Seismic organizational change, which won't be complete for quite some time. ‘In every department they’ll need to look at where and how BIM ties in with what’s important to them. What’s in it for them?’

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Even in the Executive Board? ‘Directorates don’t always have an affinity for electronic things. They’re often reluctant, or instead are keen to proceed too quickly’, smiles Arjen. ‘What helps is if digitization dovetails with strategic objectives. This could be the implementation of integrated contracts, entailing you being responsible for not only the building of a structure but also for such things as design, management and maintenance.’

‘In such cases, you can optimize BIM across these phases and it will soon be clear what benefits you will be gaining at strategic level. Or take directors down to construction sites where digital work is being done. Thus making it tangible for them, showing them what it can bring.’

How to put together your house digitally

Proactive

Arjen emphasizes how important the existing technical knowledge of staff is and will continue to be. In fact, digitization will provide the tools and the information to do work even better. ‘A lot of people say that we’ll need vast numbers of data analysts in the near future, to enable optimization of management and maintenance of your built projects. Actually, that’s not the case.’

‘The challenge is to train certain groups of technicians in a construction firm in such a way that they can also perform straightforward data analyses - to optimize maintenance and thus be able to draw up maintenance plans, for instance.’

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Industrialization

Will the way we build change in structural terms? Arjen is keen to take a quick look at the future: ‘In due course we’ll be seeing more modular concepts, standard components that can be combined in a variety of ways to form a single design and which can be produced in a factory. At a later stage it will be possible to dismantle the whole thing again before shipping off the parts to be reused on other sites.’

‘Digitization is not something to be limited to a couple of people in your company

‘This is, of course, being done already in a certain form in residential housebuilding, but it’s set to be used elsewhere with increasing frequency, spurred on by the possibilities presented by digital solutions’, thinks Arjen. ‘In this regard, we’ll also be seeing more cooperation between parties at a level transcending individual projects. So here it really is about a different way of working.’

‘3D designs as we currently know them will be superseded by parametric designs. In this respect, a designer will be able to produce a design for a structure using smart software based on all manner of changing circumstances (parameters). You can already see this happening in various places at present. And at the end of the day computers will be able to generate an array of designs with the aid of historic data, algorithms and computer power on the basis of particular objectives and requirements.’

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Get ready

‘It may be that we go on to print one or more of these designs as prototypes, after which we’ll cover them in sensors and test them. The data thereby produced can then be used to optimize our design. You’ll subsequently be able to implement the design with advanced production methods, such as 3D printers. As should be clear, this will bring about considerable change in the design and implementation process.’

In due course, not only will this put some people out of work but existing jobs will change and new ones will be created too, anticipates Arjen. ‘It’s important to get together and look at how new digital tools and ways of working will reshape a role, what this will demand in terms of competencies and how you can prepare your existing staff for the change. Get your business and your staff ready for the future and insulate yourself against surprises. Rather than burying your head in the sand and only looking up once the world around you has changed.’

Scenarios

This means preparing future scenarios with your staff. ‘At present, we’re viewing digital developments, such as robots, with a great deal of trepidation, but in fact we don’t yet have a clue what such developments will mean’, muses Arjen. ‘What scenarios do we anticipate for the future? And what will this mean for the company and its people?’

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‘There’s so much eulogizing about things like “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning”. But will things work in your design process or on your own construction site? Don’t let it drive you mad and keep working on things you currently have faith in. But do make a start on discussing the future within your company. Produce an outline roadmap of how the design, implementation, and management and maintenance process will run or could change with digital solutions, and talk about this with your staff. Involve them in future scenarios and look at what steps you can already take now. That way you’ll be working together on the present and the future.’