A study into the digitalisation of NSW’s apartment construction industry has found most organisations failing to take advantage of the opportunities new technologies present in improving safety, efficiency and sustainability.
The report was ordered by the Office of the NSW Building Commissioner and conducted by Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction (c4SMC).
Against a backdrop of high-profile structural failures and reduced public confidence, it aimed to investigate and offer opportunities to improve digitalisation of the class 2 building sector in NSW, particularly in respect to the production of design drawings and as built drawings.
It found most designers and builders had little to no direct training in digital processes and the majority of organisations saw digitalisation as overly expensive without recognising the potential for improving efficiency and financial returns.
Director of c4SMC and report co-author, professor Srinath Perera explained that in an assessment of “digital maturity”, just over half, or 52 per cent of organisations were classified in the bottom tier, or “basic”, using minimal digital processes and technologies.
In the second, “advanced” tier, were 42 per cent of organisations, while 6 per cent were in the second highest, “smart” tier of digitalisation.
“If the construction industry is to progress, we need to be rapidly digitalising our construction processes,” professor Perera said.
The report pointed out that most (54 per cent) of designers and builders involved in class 2 construction were classified as micro-level organisations employing less than four people, with only 5 per cent of organisations considered large, with 200 or more employees.
Staff training in obtaining new digital capabilities was mostly conducted in an “ad-hoc” on-the-job manner. Most designers and builders outsourced their IT services and around one third provided no specific training on digital processes.
Professor Perera said the industry was overtly concerned with the day to day of what they had to deliver while putting training on the backburner. In addition, research and development spending across both designers and builders was below one per cent, compared to 10 per cent in the manufacturing industry.
“This is indicative of a sector that is stagnating, not advancing at a pace it should,” he said.
The greatest barriers to digitalisation uptake were identified as the high cost of software and hardware, while competitive advantage and financial incentives did not rate highly as drivers.
Government efforts slow to pay off
NSW minister for Better Regulation and Innovation, Kevin Anderson called the report a “baseline on which to move forward with the further digitalisation across the industry.”
“Digitising the NSW building industry and moving away from analog record keeping has high potential to deliver substantial public benefits through increased regulatory efficiency and improved industry productivity,” Mr Anderson said.
“Digital platforms such as the NSW Planning Portal and the Strata Hub are creating an end-to-end record of buildings across their life; a fingerprint or DNA of that building through planning, construction, occupation and maintenance.”
He pointed to the Design and Building Practitioners Act 2020 that requires designs and as built drawings to be in a digital format. Although, one of the findings of the report was that 41 per cent of builders surveyed said they knew very little about the act, and 19 per cent said they had not heard about it at all.
NSW Minister for Finance and Small Business Damien Tudehope said the opportunities of digitisation went far beyond transfering an analog design to a digital one.
Tudehope said startups that were working with the construction industry to develop products to enhance the work done by builders and designers and engineers should be supported.
The role of startups
NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler added that while supporting startups was important, them and others offering technological solutions to the industry needed to be clear about their place in it.
“I get absolutely inundated by people who’ve got new technologies, new ideas and new thinking,” Mr Chandler said.
“If we simply think of technology as being little pieces that add to correct an industry that’s been on a falling trajectory of capability for the last 20-30 years, these little band aid pieces are actually not much good to us for the future.”
“We are now turning the trajectory of this industry around such that it would be essential for people who are making new innovative software and capability to be understanding how they fit into an industry that is [curving up], not [curving down] anymore.”
He added his organisation was looking to get the most possible out of the digital transition including making large data pools publicly available and pursuing a range of related opportunities.
“We’ve got a Blockchain project at the moment around the Building Assurance Solution, which is looking at the trustworthiness of buildings when they’re finished,” Chandler said.
“It’s a very important piece for insurers to renew their appetite to come back and take on the risks of this industry.”
Chandler encouraged all those in the sector, not to become complacent with their knowledge and to consider pursuing further education in the form of graduate degrees in order to stay on top of the rapid changes.
“If you think everything you know today is going to serve you for the next 20-30 years of your professional life, you are dreaming.”