Home » Opinion divided on construction’s digital headway, says report

Opinion divided on construction’s digital headway, says report

by Mark Cantrell
A man interacting with a digital world via a VR headset

The construction sector is divided over the question of its digital prowess, with some feeling it’s finding its feet while others fear it continues to lag behind, but for all that, there’s a strong appetite for emerging technology.

In short, that’s a summation of the Digital Construction Report 2023, published by NBS, which questions the progress – or lack thereof – of the industry’s digital revolution.

The report focuses on emerging technology and the industry’s approach to digital transformation; offering a snapshot of industry professionals’ various views and evolving opinions.

As NBS found, one of the most hotly debated topics from this year’s study concerns the industry’s rate of tech adoption, and whether it now excels in terms of digital expertise.

Despite an overall rise in the use of digital technologies, nearly half (47%) were found to be concerned the industry is behind the times. Moreover, 36% of respondents said they worry that they will be left behind when it comes to digital know-how.

However, around a quarter (26%) believe this is an outdated view and is no longer the case, and that construction has finally found its ‘digital feet’. With such a divided split, NBS says it could suggest that ‘digitisation’ is more prominent in some areas of construction than others.

David Bain, research manager at NBS, said: “It’s clear from the results that construction has ramped up digital adoption in recent years, and is a far stride from where it was three years ago. Looking ahead, it will be fascinating to see next year’s report as 2024 is shaping up to be big on AI and machine learning.”

Off-site and digital twin

In the report, NBS also finds that the use of digital twins has increased by 50% since 2021, leaping from 16% to 25%. What’s more, just over half (55%) of those that use digital twins, do so to mirror construction from other projects, and to create an ‘as-built model’.

This could, it says, be evidence that building safety and efficiency is now taking precedence.

Meanwhile, figures relating to the number of projects using elements of off-site construction also showed an uptick. Over half of professionals (57%) had been involved in a project that used modern methods of construction (MMC) in the past twelve months.

In 2021, this figure was hovering at around 50% so an upward trend is taking place. Suppliers were the most likely (70%) followed by contractors (63%) and consultants (58%).

The increased uptake of off-site construction has also been reflected in project data from Glenigan, NBS says. Its industry intelligence shows a value-adjusted percentage of 11% of new-build projects using MMC during the first nine months of 2023.

Glenigan predicts further growth to this figure over the next few years, with nearly 9% of new-build projects securing detailed planning approval during the first nine months of 2023 involving an off-site element.

Immersed in the work

The study also flagged a growing appetite for the use of immersive technologies, such as AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and MR (mixed reality), which are playing an increasingly important role.

More than one in three professionals (36%) are already using this type of technology, and a further one in five (20%) plans to within the next three years.

Overwhelmingly, the report finds, its main use is for stakeholder engagement (74%), where upcoming or ongoing projects can be digitally generated to present detailed plans.

However, for two in three users (62%), immersive tech offers a way to visualise design interfaces, so they can better understand how construction projects fit within existing surroundings.

Just over a third (35%) use it for marketing purposes, particularly amongst suppliers (67%) who recognise its value when selling products and systems.

Machine learning

Interest in AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning has also seen a sharp rise within the past year, following the launch of ChatGPT and other algorithm-based language models.

Looking back to 2020, two in five (38%) said they were unsure if their organisation was using it; of those who did, just 9% were using AI. Although the use of AI in construction is yet to take its grip (43% said they have no plans to use it), signs of early adopters are already visible.

More than one in five (22%) have already adopted AI, and a similar number (20%) said they will do so within a year.

Head in the clouds

Eight in 10 now also use a form of cloud computing as part of their daily workflow, the report finds.

While mainly in the form of storage, including Google Drive, OnePoll, DropBox, and so on, the study revealed that over seven in 10 use it to share documents and information with clients. Three-quarters (75%) also use it to collaborate with other team members, particularly on 3D models and specifications. Given the industry’s push towards the Golden Thread, and focus on digital information management, it shows that the sector is making the essential investment to increase efficiency and reduce risk in the built environment.

Russell Haworth, chief executive at NBS, said: “Looking at the evidence, we can see that construction is shaking off old and tired misconceptions, and now relies on all manner of digital skills to produce building excellence.

“That said, there are still some areas for improvement, and no doubt next year will bring further leaps in tech know-how and application.”

Image credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

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