A recent webinar hosted by Linesight was enlightening on post-COVID-19 trends, challenges and opportunities in the global construction industry, giving a timely insight into the road that lies ahead. Irish building magazine spoke with Paul Boylan, Linesight Group Chief Commercial Officer and other contributors.
There is an opportunity to use COVID-19 to improve productivity and ways of working in the construction industry going forward. This will be through the adoption of technologies and techniques that have been spoken about for many years and used in isolation but never really implemented as an overall solution.
This was the key takeaway from the Linesight webinar entitled ‘Future Trends, Challenges and Opportunities in Construction Post-COVID-19’, according to Paul Boylan, Linesight Group Chief Commercial Officer, who chaired the discussion.
“The industry is at an inflection point. In getting back to work, companies are much more open to leveraging technologies that they were previously resistant to for the greater good while interacting with safety. COVID-19 is a catalyst for change and digitalisation is now being more positively received,” he says.
The high-profile webinar panel included Daniel Costello, VP for Data Centre Engineering, Google, Mick Lynam, Director of Project Delivery, PM Group, Micheál O’Connor, Deputy Managing Director, Dornan Engineering and Shane Dempsey, Director of Communications, the Construction Industry Federation.
Dempsey described COVID-19 as “the construction industry’s disruptor, our Uber or Amazon”. “Digitalisation is the answer to this, presenting a transformative opportunity to modernise the industry and offset the volatility in this economic cycle,” he said.
In the question and answer (Q&A) session at the end of the webinar, the panel agreed that there is an opportunity for Ireland Inc. to be more competitive post-COVID-19, provided the construction industry takes the appropriate action collectively and all stakeholders come together towards a common goal. Those that are most adaptable and flexible will be most successful and there needs to be joined-up thinking to connect the various technologies and processes that already exist.
As Costello highlighted, meeting COVID-19 requirements has resulted in an enhanced health and safety programme incorporating improved welfare facilities for site crews. He provided insight into the technologies being rolled out on Google sites to counterbalance declining productivity, while at the same time addressing health and safety issues and improving lead times. These include the application of robotics and automation and field integration and assembly.
“Social distancing has led to the increased use of techniques such as offsite manufacturing, modularisation, Lean manufacturing and Just-in-Time delivery of materials to sites – activities which were aspirational for many years will have to become a reality to keep major projects ticking over at pace,” notes Boylan.
Importance Of Alignment
A point which came across strongly in the webinar and reiterated by a number of speakers was the need for deeper integration and better alignment up-front of all the people involved in bringing sites to market. Lynam, for example, emphasised that now, more than ever, plans must be well thought out and measures built in to facilitate that throughout the project lifecycle.
“COVID-19 has changed the landscape of how projects are executed forever,” says Boylan. “The alignment of all key stakeholders on the design of project scopes and the phasing of projects is critical to success. The sequencing of the build is very important to the ultimate successful delivery of projects, given the constraints on process productivity post-COVID-19. Procurement and supply chain issues have become major factors as the industry tries to make them more automated, contactless and more efficient in the way they are run.”
In a nutshell, the new landscape requires fewer people on-site, better integration and better alignment of all key stakeholders up-front, he continues. “This is not one-size fits all. Some sectors in Ireland and globally are more advanced in this type of approach. The best lessons learned in terms of process and project integration and better front-end planning need to be taken into Irish examples. A lot of the major general contractors and consultancy firms here already have large numbers of people with those skill-sets.”
New Ways Of Working
Looking in more detail at the practicalities of the new methods of working, O’Connor spoke about how communication and collaboration have become more challenging with remote working, but regularity and reinforcement are all the more crucial in times of such uncertainty.
“This is particularly significant for young professionals and craft workers in relation to where and how they are mentored,” says Boylan. “We need to find a way to get people back into a team environment. Lessons can be shared and learned across the industry with a view to continuing to be able to attract future apprentices and graduates.”
In the Q&A session, the panel emphasised that the industry cannot allow COVID-19 to be a barrier to taking on apprentices or to the quality of on-the-job training. They expect to see a greater level of communication, increased use of technology and a greater use of personal protective equipment to enable apprentices to take part in close-quarter, on-the-job training. The key point, they stressed, must be that employers don’t see the training of apprentices as too much of an effort because of COVID-19, as this would be short-sighted.
Skills shortages will still exist in certain disciplines in the post-COVID climate, such as process pipework services, notes Boylan. “It will be interesting to see how the market reacts and how it rebounds. We don’t know whether there will be the same level of demand for certain skills with fewer people on sites and more people working from home. It will probably take 6 to 12 months for this to work through the system.”
Focusing on sector trends, Boylan says that things are fluid at the moment but he foresees some important developments: “There is a big push in the pharmaceutical sector globally to bring manufacturing and distribution closer together in local markets. There will be increased demand in data centres – in Ireland there is a number of large projects under construction at the moment that will be finished and there are additional major projects planned and in the pipeline. On the commercial side, we are seeing some major clients hitting the pause button as they want to assess how the working from home trend will pan out.”
A recent survey of Linesight clients revealed that 29% stated that COVID-19 would impact their investment programmes heavily, with 49% saying it would impact it moderately. In addition, 67% agreed that post-COVID-19 projects will take longer and cost more. One respondent said preliminary costs of projects will be higher and it is the client who will pay for this and that the usual approach of bringing additional resources on-site towards the finishing stages of the project will be more difficult.
In wrapping up the webinar discussion, Boylan stated that a level of maturity is required in terms of the actual impact of COVID-19 and warned against “kneejerk reactions” where contractors might see the pandemic as an opportunity to re-negotiate terms. “An approach that delivers optimum outcomes for all sides must be pursued. Contract commitments have been made and should be honoured. It’s in everyone’s interest to be sensible in how they deal with time and cost issues to ensure projects get off the ground and are completed,” he says.
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