Digital transformation is advancing incredibly rapidly in all sectors, accelerated since the start of 2020, as we all know, by the spread of the pandemic, which had the collateral effect – principally as a result of smart working – of making the new technologies even more important. For that is what digital transformation is, in essence: the process of the evolution of business models, starting from the continual advances in technology. The introduction of new digital tools, hardware and software, has led to, and is feeding, a radical shift in business culture, work methods and workflows. As a result, digital transformation is also bringing about an evolution in the construction sector: let’s take a look at how construction has changed and is changing as a result of this new approach, the fruit of developments in IT.
Digital transformation and construction: the IDC study
In 2020, IDC carried out a study of digital transformation in construction across the globe, titled “The Future of Connected Construction”. The study involved over 800 professionals from Europe, America (North and South) and Asia. The most interesting result was that digital transformation was a priority for almost 4 out of 5 construction companies. More specifically, 72% of the interviewees indicated digital transformation as a key priority for the development of work processes, business models and company ecosystems. The study also reported the results of individual countries, so that it is clear, for example, how much importance is attributed to digital transformation in the construction sector in the United Kingdom, where digital transformation was indicated as a priority by 83% of the interviewees. Moreover, this is not simply a case of wishes or goals for the future: 81% of British professionals said they were actively involved in the digital transformation process.
As regards current projects, however, it must be said that the use of digital solutions continues to be marginal. For example, only 1% of the interviewees claimed to be using digital tools in over 60% of their projects, whereas over 70% of businesses used digital solutions in less than 30% of their projects. So it appears that while there are clear advantages to digital developments, and businesses are ready, we are still waiting for what may be termed the great leap forward in digital transformation in construction.
According to IDC, there are 5 digital challenges that companies in the sector need to tackle over the next few years. The first is the creation of a technological roadmap shared at company level, in order to establish the extent of digital investment required; the second is the creation of a scalable technological architecture, followed by the third, which is to establish clear objectives for measuring development; finally, the last two challenges are to muster the necessary technological skills and to integrate the best digital practices into the company.
BIM, the key tool for digital transformation in the construction industry
It is undoubtedly true that if there is one crucial tool that can guide digital transformation in the world of construction, it would be the well-known BIM, which stands for Building Information Modelling. In brief, this is the digital representation of a construction, which is able to show physical and functional characteristics of the building, such as the other steps in the lifecycle, for example. BIM is being used increasingly widely in the construction industry around the world, ensuring sharing, flexibility, and broad-ranging interaction: it should be stressed that this tool brings together the different professionals involved in a project, providing them with opportunities for encounter throughout the entire construction process.
One might consider BIM as the virtualisation of all the information regarding a project, which is extremely valuable during the design phase, as well as the construction phase and later on, the maintenance phase.
New professional figures
It is important to note that even more than the spread of digital tools and technologies, digital transformation is, and has to be, the evolution of the skills of the workers. In recent years we have seen new professionals appear in the world of construction, such as the technician in building physics technologies, who seeks to improve construction processes and resolve application problems; or the systemic design engineer, trained to provide modern solutions starting with the use of innovative systems and sustainable materials; or again, the home automation experts. In some cases we are dealing with completely new professional figures, while in other cases we are dealing with operators already working in the sector, who have, over time, put new skills to use; and this will continue over the coming years, with professionals who specialize in the use of drones or tools for digital mapping, and so on.
Digital transformation in the building industry also brings with it the use of ever more innovative materials, which can be put to use as a result of the new technologies themselves. Using these new materials means reducing maintenance costs or energy requirements each time, or drastically cutting harmful emissions. Take the latest generation photovoltaic glass, for example, that makes it possible to construct ever more efficient and controllable renewable energy systems, or products that can be made from these innovative materials, such as floors that turn people’s footsteps into electrical energy.
Digital technologies and safety
We are not only talking about performance and sustainability: the new digital technologies used in the construction sector can have important benefits as regards safety, too, reducing the number of accidents and deaths in the construction industry. With sensors that can be applied to objects or directly to operators, technology offers the possibility of greater control of movement, and the chance to warn against, and therefore stop, imminent dangers. Indeed, as a result of the new technologies, it is possible to have updates in real time on GPS coordinates, movements and people’s vital signs, so as to be able to take action both immediately and in the longer term to improve the health and safety of the workers.
Internet of Things and Smart Building
Finally, on the subject of digital transformation in the construction industry, we should not forget the potential developments made possible by the Internet of Things, and all that broad range of technologies that enable us to talk about intelligent buildings and consequently, Smart Cities. With automatized control of systems and energy consumption, the IoT makes it possible to monitor the main parameters of a building at any point in time, to increase comfort, health, sustainability and energy savings.