Update on the Use of I.T. In The Northern Ireland Construction Industry
By Gerard Graham MCIOB, Procurement Manager at Wilson Construction
In 1999 as the world was preparing for the new Millennium we experienced what was the .com era. This was 15 years ago when the internet was just beginning to become a recognised tool in how business was conducted. At that stage in my career I was working as a Site Engineer on a £90m construction project in the centre of Belfast which at the time was at the forefront in the use of emerging technology. Facts about it I remember include:
- There was only one email address to service the project.
- The construction company had a temporary base at the site yet none of the project management team members had their own individual email address.
- There was no wireless or broadband technology at the time. Anyone with a laptop needed a USB connection.
- There were no smart phones, just standard Nokia phones. Phone calls and text messages were the only features available on the handsets. Only two people had a mobile phone on the project as they were seen as an expensive luxury, not a necessity.
- Communication between companies was primarily by Fax.
- When a drawing was re-issued, a hard copy was printed and photocopied for all the project team members – causing a lot of excess photocopying.
- All meetings were face-to-face. Video conferencing was not available and there were certainly no Viber or Skype facilities!
- The main computer that was connected to the internet had a dial-up connection. It was a 64MB machine.
- A new technology was beginning to be used called ‘zipping files’ to send large attachments. At the time very few companies had even heard of it.
- Handover files were all hard copy documents.
Fast forward 15 years and the Northern Ireland Construction Industry is progressing rapidly in the utilization of I.T. The progressive construction companies are now experiencing the following:
- Smart phones for all key staff members with email access as standard.
- iPads and other touch-screen tablet technology is being introduced for tasks including from getting visitors to sign-off on Site Inductions, where previously a pen and paper with clip board would have been used.
- Back office Server rooms which had been introduced are now being replaced by Cloud computing to reduce the physical space required in Head Office buildings.
- Integrated management systems incorporating quality, environmental and health & safety accredited to ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 standards are becoming increasingly prevalent among companies. The documents and records are becoming paperless as far as possible. The use of surveymonkey.com rather than posting a customer feedback questionnaire with a self addressed envelope is becoming common practice.
- Social media is being fully integrated into formal communication strategies. For example a major local Contractor has set up a Facebook sub-page for each of its construction projects as a means to update the local community around the project and neighbouring occupiers on progress. If the Foreman is updated that a delivery is due to arrive outside of the usual working hours then that is updated on to the Facebook page via a smart phone on site which is using the Wi-Fi to alert the neighbours as part of the company’s commitment to community liaison. Likewise if for example there was unavoidable noisy activity planned for during the week this would be updated to the Facebook page so the neighbours would be alerted. This also gives people the opportunity to give the Contractor feedback, which the progressive companies use to continually improve their operations.
- Large printers are becoming less common as drawings are being viewed on site remotely via iPads.
- Video conferencing is becoming common place.
- Apps are being created for almost everything. Previously any defects would be handwritten on a page and managed from there. Apps are now being used so a Foreman can photograph a defect, add a description along with a date and time that it was identified and use an iPad to manage and track the actions before handover – all paperless.
The biggest challenge to face the industry in the last ten years is the introduction of Building Information Modelling (BIM). The key fact for Northern Ireland companies is this: All suitable centrally procured projects over EU threshold €5,000,000 (approx £4,320,000) to attain BIM Level 2 by 2016. In simple terms BIM is about taking the information produced by all the parties in a construction project including Architect, Structural, Mechanical and Electrical Engineers and collating that information into one common platform that all the parties can see, use and interact with. Up until now each of the parties involved in a project used software specific to their chosen discipline that only they could use. For example a typical scenario would be that a Mechanical Engineer would design an air-conditioning unit for a new multi-storey office building; when designing it they would have the Architect’s drawings of the layout of the building including where all the beams and columns were to be located. When the Construction Manager was managing the build on site it would become obvious that the air-conditioning unit could not be fitted in the exact location where it was meant to be due to the positioning of a column. BIM helps eradicate a problem like this through clash detection as it allows 3D modelling before construction work actually begins on site. It is based on the principle of all the parties using I.T. to collaborate to make a more efficient industry and reduce life cycle costs. Some Northern Ireland firms are progressing very well with the introduction of BIM and have already won contracts in GB where BIM has been a requirement.
In summary, professionals involved in the Northern Ireland Construction Industry are very much harnessing the use of IT. Recently I was invited to judge a HND student project where groups of students had worked together on a mock proposal to develop a site into a commercial building. The first group used BIM to prepare a design, MovieMaker to create a 3D visual walk-through, Excel to prepare the financial forecast, Publisher to prepare marketing material and PowerPoint to present it – whilst using desktop and mobile technology to aid the construction process on site. Utilisation of these tools is becoming increasingly regular now. Surely this bodes well for the development of a sustainable local Construction Industry.
Gerard Graham MCIOB is a Chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Building and Procurement Manager for Wilson Construction. He can be contacted on [email protected]
Click here to download a PDF copy of the article in Northern Builder magazine.