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While a new idea for the construction industry, digital use cases are not as complicated as they sound. They involve applying one or multiple digital technologies to realize a specifically defined, discrete and quantifiable benefit. They put the value of a new technology — like software, hardware or drones, for example — before any implementation, according to David Rockhill, a London-based associate partner for New York City-based McKinsey & Co.
Essentially, AEC companies need to be thinking of the problem new technologies could be solving, rather than adopting the newest tech making the most noise, almost as a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, he said.
A recent McKinsey study identified digital use cases as one of the main ways that construction companies can increase success with digital technologies.
What you should know
Because a digital use case is a concept, not a physical thing, it can take team members some time to understand their benefit.
Knowing where the value is added, said Rockhill, means starting from the ground up. For instance, finding a way to ensure site managers have up-to-date access to drawings should be made by going to the site managers to learn more.
Rockhill used the example of a company distributing tablets to site managers across regions, but perhaps some projects are in colder climates, or the manager would prefer physical drawings. In that situation, the best use case might be having a high-tech printer onsite that can regularly share the newest drawings and updates to the project.
“Start by understanding, ‘If I’m going to digitize my business, where is this technology going to create impact, or where do I need to create impact? Therefore what technology do I need to use?’” he said.
Matt Abeles, vice president of construction technology and innovation for Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), said understanding the culture of a company is also important. A smaller contractor may have a CEO who is also the owner, CTO and CFO. The tech decisions in firms like these need to be relatively simple before larger steps can be taken, he said.
Here are Rockhill's tips for getting the most out of use cases:
- Start with the desired outcomes and the related processes, not technology. Use cases should create impact by improving a process or processes on a project by reducing costs, accelerating delivery or improving quality, he said. It is important that front-line workers who are involved in the process implementation are part of the effort to identify valuable use cases and the particular levers that need improvement. "It is important to remember that technology is just the enabler," he said.
- Describe the use case and set motivating targets. The most effective use cases are clearly communicated with a focus on the anticipated impact, therefore helping to build understanding, support and adoption in a team or company. Furthermore, organizations should set and track progress against quantitative targets for improvement.
- Focus on use cases that connect different functions and disciplines. Fragmentation is one of the main drivers of low productivity in construction. Any digital use cases that reduce the friction between different trades and functions can have a significant positive impact on productivity.
Some examples of how digital use cases have helped construction firms include:
- One contractor developed an app to allow supervisors to sign completion certificates digitally. After the app was developed, the team defined a new use case to push safety briefings and alerts through the app so supervisors could disseminate them to teams, Rockhill said.
- Another E&C company embraced the potential of enterprise-wide use cases by standardizing the specifications for its insulation panels. Previously, the company had sourced similar products from different suppliers. By digitizing and standardizing element data, the company gained an enterprisewide view of element volumes, which allowed it to standardize specifications and aggregate purchase orders to obtain savings.
- Although drones seem like a high-tech solution, they’re not always appropriate for every project, Rockhill noted. Instead, contractors should seek out whatever the application that can virtually capture and display 360-degree images of a site that saves for the site manager.
- A widespread example of a digital use case is BIM, which offers up-to-date design information to stakeholders across projects. Even a widely implemented use case like BIM can benefit.
- For a smaller company, Abeles said, something as simple as digitized timecards included in project management solutions can save time and effort, while simultaneously addressing larger management issues.
It’s important to keep in mind that digital use cases alone will not enhance a company’s bottom line. “New software won’t create financial impact,” Rockhill said “A new process, a new material will be what creates a financial impact.”
That said, Rockhill reiterated that being in touch with the engineers and contractors on the ground is essential to ensuring innovation. Even then, a one-size-fits all approach won’t work, so ensuring the communication from all ends of the process, across countries and continents, is vital.
In addition, most decision-makers may be older, and have less of a grasp of the fast growing technology, than the younger workforce. Understanding the different levels of tech fluency within a company is a major factor, Abeles told Construction Dive.
“The most successful midsize to large contractors are embracing dual education, meaning the old guard is educating the future workforce on trade skills and the new generation is teaching the older generation on how and why to embrace tech,” Abeles said.