Analysis

John Adams: My big takeaways from the Digital Construction Summit

27 May 2019 | By John Adams

John Adams

It’s just a few months before the we turn the calendar on a new decade, and with the UK BIM Alliance target for making BIM business as usual in the UK by 2020, this is a notable line in the sand.

With this in mind, I expected the Digital Construction Summit 2019 content to either be a triumphant rallying cry declaring we’re almost there, or to offer more reflective tone about potentially missing the date but celebrating progress nonetheless. But somehow it was both and neither all at the same time. 

I spoke to a few of the attendees afterwards and there was a similar feeling that despite genuinely excellent content, there was very little consensus about where we were on our digital adoption journey. The crux of the discontinuity may just lie in the individual experiences of the speakers and panelists. Real world BIM practice has now had enough time to imprint a personal stance, which confirms BIM is happening on the ground and as with all things, everyone is receiving a different experience. 

If DCS 2019 was anyone’s first digital construction event it must have felt like walking into a hall of mirrors. Is the construction industry lean and impressive, or, is it upside down and oddly distorted?  Here’s a few vignettes to ponder from the day…

Is DfMA an inevitable solution on the horizon or still in the “too hard” box? 

Jaimie Johnston flexed Bryden Wood’s Design for Manufacture and Assembly muscles when he told the summit they’ve got their own offsite manufacturing facility for the testing and perfecting of their latest iteration of solutions. The concepts now have several physical forms, including built elements assembled with no prior knowledge of construction. 

Combining this commanding display of innovation with Alistair Kell’s earlier session which contained an impressive career progression path to create Generative Engineers, there is a real sense that we are delivering the new skills and processes needed to make DfMA mainstream. 

Sam Stacey, Transforming Construction Challenge director at UK Research and Innovation, showed a responsive “flying factory” set up to deliver a significant batch of pre-plumbed utility rooms, which was wound down quickly after completion. The realistic future of DfMA was compelling.

However…

The admirable array of clients represented on the line-up saw things quite differently. The long and costly path which needs to be traversed to get a spade in the ground is too likely to fail in the current climate. Whether it’s regulations, policy, indemnity or political landscape causing the concerns, potential time and money for initial investment DfMA has been lost along the way. 

Jack Ostrofsky, head of design and technical at Peabody, was clear in saying this is an area they want to explore, but they are much more concerned by the current issues highlighted by the Hackitt report around golden threads and understanding their buildings. There was an outright challenge to the main contractors Peabody work with to up their transparency in their existing processes before they would be trusted with experiments. 

To add to this complexity Anne-Marie Friel, partner and digital specialist at Pinsent Masons, gave a fantastic talk on how many in our industry are not yet aware that their status quo processes have been deemed unsuitable post-Grenfell and they need to increase their accountability. This paints a picture of an industry already up to its knees in legal tar, rather than being ready to deliver a change we’ve periodically failed to deliver upon since 1918. 

Despite the issues around readiness, Alex Lubbock, head of digital construction at the Infrastructure & Projects Authority, is clear that the UK government are backing DfMA and this will become more apparent as new projects come to the market.

Lots to think about in an exciting area, but how soon DfMA will become a fixture on a significant number of sites, especially outside of London, is still unclear.   

Progress on BIM adoption

Despite the term BIM being absent from the summit title, those three little letters synonymous with digital change, standards and wedge-shaped diagrams are alive and well. But when Alex Lubbock suggested the word digital should have been used from the start, and Alistair Kell admitted being a bit ashamed he could talk in fluent BIM jargon, many of the other speakers piled in to give BIM, and its wide selection of acronyms a right old kicking. 

But with Garry Fannon believing BIM adoption had fallen into the chasm and urging for a new wave of sharing BIM success stories from clients to reenergise the uptake, dropping the terminology now may be an own goal. 

David Philp and others gave a much more optimistic view on BIM adoption; but the team from University of Birmingham admitting they have scaled back their data requirements by 98% and are still struggling to find systems that support proper use of the remaining 2%, are they right to disagree with Garry?

One thing we can look to which could add colour to this debate is the freshly published National BIM Report. By no mean does this report reach the edges of a vast industry, but it does show trends – and this year these trends are also mixed.

Whist attitudes towards BIM are becoming more positive, adoption has apparently slipped back a touch. Perhaps the mandate coming and going without the sky falling in has allowed businesses to reflect on the benefits of adoption, but without the pressure to get on with it.

Digital twins and smart tech – instant disruptor of future challenge

By the time we got to mid-morning it was easy to have lost track of how many times the digital twin buzzword detector had gone off. But despite the marketing buzz, there seems to have been a switch from focusing on smart cities as the next task at hand, to them being one outcome of converging technologies underpinned by digital twins. 

This is an industry realisation that designing and controlling the digital eco-system of cities always had a ring of King Canute’s efforts to hold back the sea. Although the discussion about digital twins was consistently sensible for possibly the first time, the adoption timeline was in question. 

Richard Saxon suggested the BIM crowd may find themselves massively disrupted by the smart technologies sooner than they believe possible, with the benefits of smart powered digital twins overlapping with the benefits of BIM to such an extent that BIM adoption loses its sense of purpose to a sensor rich built environment. 

BIM would only be necessary to provide the spatial arrangement for these sensors: the Level 2 deliverables many have worked hard to realise, reduced to the role of bookshelf, with all rich data from the design and construction process replaced by sensors data.

An audience described as “rock stars of BIM” by Neil Thompson of Atkins earlier in the day found this concept tough to swallow. And with good reason, because replicating the rich and interconnected dataset of information collected from the construction supply chain in a well-managed Level 2 process with sensor data seems a big ask.

Paul Surin from IBM wasn’t quite as drastic in his language but did make clear that the alignment of structured data approaches was bringing the possibility of bringing the possibility of “Digital Reinvention” ever closer.

However, the discussion session around the need for a “Golden Thread” kicked the idea of digital twins way into the future. Some of our clients believe we have lost control of what we are building, and there is a belief that good quality BIM adoption and adherence with standards would give us the start of the “Golden Thread” the Hackitt report demands. 

Never mind the benefits to productivity and design which can be gained from combining sensor data with information models, the audience heard we are at severe risk of entering the next decade with a bulk of our industry performing to a status quo which has been judged as archaic, weak and not fit for purpose. 

This sobering panel brought into focus the strain within the construction industry. Innovators, not just in the field of digital adoption, are trying to forge a modern construction industry but are anchored to the ground by the weight of underperformance. Can digital twin technology really emerge quickly in an environment already under extreme stress? 

DCS 2019 was a day of challenging ideas, which is classic summit territory, but what was remarkable and unusual in the discussion afterwards was that there was no consensus on whether we felt better or worse.

The next big changes in our industry may come from outside through technological disruption, legal challenge, the declaration of a climate emergency, or even the ever-present elephant in the room of Brexit. 

The truth is we’ve achieved a lot in defining and adopting BIM so far, but what comes next doesn’t have a roadmap and our shared mission has started to fragment into new theories and areas of innovation.  

From Latham and Egan, through to the BIM mandate we’ve whipped up a turbulent storm of digital disruption, and now those at the leading edge have found themselves in the middle of the vortex.