Chris Palmer envies construction companies just starting or in the early stages of their digital transformation.
"You're in a great position," said the senior manager of advanced technology services at PCL Construction, a top 10-ranked construction company, with annual revenue exceeding $6.3 billion.
"You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Most of the cloud platforms are quite mature and evolved. The heavy lifting has been done," he explained.
"The lift you're facing may not be nearly as challenging as you think."
Palmer and his IT team know all about the lift. The company has long viewed technology as a competitive differentiator. PCL senior leadership invests heavily in software development, amassing a sizable library of proprietary applications designed to help manage construction operations.
The team at PCL faced a number of questions with its technology options:
- Are we moving too fast?
- Not fast enough?
- How do we minimize training disruptions?
- How do we define success?
- Is the staff integrating digital tools into the workflow?
- Where are the bottlenecks? How do we eliminate them?
- How do we provide instant access to synched design files anytime, anywhere, from any device?
One early challenge was managing the amount of data generated by BIM authoring tools, point cloud laser scans, construction drawings, photo documentation and other files.
The pace of activity proved daunting, too. PCL project managers are responsible for anywhere from 700 to 1,000 projects at any time. About 200 of those projects are sufficiently large enough to warrant their own on-site office or jobsite trailer and thus require a dedicated, on-site file server to ensure that real-time collaboration, especially on very large files are not slowed down. Identifying a means to curate, secure and govern a massive body of data proved to be an early inflection point.
Emerging Need for a Common Data Environment
"Model drawings continue to get larger, with 4D, 5D and 6D renderings and beyond becoming more common. Digital construction is evolving very rapidly. The need to collaborate remotely, as the COVID shutdowns have shown, is more important than ever," Palmer said. Net: A central feature of a digital construction strategy may be a central data clearinghouse that enables project teams, subcontractors, owners, investors and other stakeholders to access files of any size following administrative policy.
The need for an enterprise-level content-management strategy seemed straightforward enough. Without one, the organization faced an unruly mix of cloud-based point solutions, regional office servers and job site servers as required. Then there's the question of VPN logins and hit-or-miss remote connectivity, access concerns that frequently plague job sites, especially with subs that also need file access. The requirements of a content solution might include:
- Vast cloud-based data storage, over 100 TB in PCL's case.
- Easy access to data from smartphones, tablets, laptops, any device.
- Fail-safe privacy and security features to safeguard high-value IP assets.
- Seamless file collaboration across distributed teams, field and home-based.
- Controlled system access to up to 4,500 PCL employees and 30,000 subcontractors.
- Automatic file syncing for latest version confidence.
- Intuitive user interface to mitigate training and speed staff adoption.
- Hybrid storage functionality to support plug-and-play job site servers.
- Native integration with common industry applications.
- Custom development capability to amend and tailor to PCL requirements.
- Simple means to retain, archive and delete based on governance policies.
Palmer and his team investigated four or five leading content-management systems. They settled on the cloud native service platform from Egnyte, a company that serves more than 3,000 AEC companies worldwide.
That decision was six years ago. What lessons does it hold for others? Palmer summed up PCL's experience in a single word: enablement. "Egnyte was one of the first platforms we adopted. It's been an enabler for us. It's allowed us to focus on adding more value to our smart construction platforms and bringing our IP experience to the market. None of that would have happened without the initial success of moving our data to a cloud-based platform."
The PCL senior manager of digital construction, a field-facing position active with project superintendents and foremen, agreed. "The fact you can download or upload a massive model file from your smartphone wasn't something available just a couple of years ago," remarked John Boktor. It's an activity now taken for granted on PCL job sites as well as home offices.
A Question of Change
Palmer conceded that the real test of a digital transition was how companies, any company, approached change. "Align your digital transition with your people. Ultimately, that's what drives success. It's the only way to unlock all the advantages you're investing in."