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Construction in a post-Covid world

The pandemic may have disrupted construction supply chains, but digital technologies will help to create a more resilient future for the industry, says Nathan Doughty, CEO of Asite

The past 18 have been particularly difficult for the construction industry, largely because of the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Although work continued on many construction sites in the UK, the US and other industrialised economies, social distancing guidelines, PPE equipment and the shift to home-working in the back office have complicated matters. Contractors have also faced material and labour shortages, increased costs and project delivery challenges, while asset owners have struggled with reduced revenue and disrupted demand. So how can we ensure the construction industry is more resilient in future?

Let’s start with the shift to home-working in the back-office, which Asite has helped to support. Our cloud-based collaboration platform is designed to manage workflows and communication across all stakeholders involved in a construction project, regardless of their location. It allows for full auditability across a project’s lifecycle, real-time sharing of 3D asset models and integrates with tools like Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

We’ve always known that these collaborative technologies can deliver time and efficiency savings for the construction industry, as well as environmental benefits due to reduced travel. But over the past eighteen months they’ve proven that in spades, and they’re bound to remain part of the construction landscape even as the threat posed by Covid-19 recedes. 

Securing supply chains

The reliance of national industry in the UK, US and Western Europe on production and manufacturing in Asia — particularly China — is all well and good when the global supply chain and the shipping industry functions perfectly. But the pandemic has exposed this system to severe stresses and strains. Just look at shipping: capacity has gone down but the cost has gone through the roof, which is creating major supply issues for everything from bricks to timber.

As such, we’re likely to see a shift to more localised and regional manufacturing in future, which may well be healthier for many economies. Contractors are also looking at how they can order construction materials more efficiently, manage scarce resources more accurately and maintain cash flow during uncertain times — and here, again, technology has much to offer.

Think about the kind of rapid delivery that Amazon specialises in, which allows customers to order something and receive it the next — or even the very same — day. Now imagine that philosophy applied to the construction industry.

This isn’t a new idea. Just-in-time delivery, which reduces the number of items that need to be stored on-site, has been a discussion topic in the construction industry for many years. At Asite, it’s always been our goal to digitally connect the construction supply chain and make it more efficient, so our platform allows buyers to browse a supplier’s online product catalogue on-site, order something directly, and have it delivered right away. This not only streamlines procurement processes but also ensures you have a single source of truth for project spend across the entire supply chain.

That single source of truth can also help to address payment problems. The complicated flow of funds from funders to project owners, and from them to the general contractor, and then on down the chain to various subcontractors and other trades, often means it takes a long time for the people at the bottom to get paid. In the meantime, they have to fund everything out of their own cash flow, which is difficult for a small business.

The UK government has put in place a prompt payment code, but this is only really enforceable for government projects. What our technology can do is provide everybody in the supply chain with visibility of what work has been completed, when, and where the funds for it currently are. This transparency can encourage payments to be made in a prompt and timely manner.

New jobs and technologies

Sustainable economies need more blue-collar and production orientated jobs — not just knowledge-based white-collar ones. These jobs are needed in every town and city across the US, and in many cases they’re well paid too. For instance, construction is the only industry in the US where you can get a $60,000, $70,000 or $80,000 job without a college degree. 

Biden’s infrastructure plan, which is currently expected to provide roughly $1tn of investment, should help to create more of these jobs while addressing problems with the US’s ageing infrastructure. This will undoubtedly be a net positive for the construction industry.

The introduction of new technologies like on-site AR, which can help to digitally identify issues with a project before they become major problems, is also helping to make these jobs more exciting and attractive to graduates. Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) is also now being embraced by a growing number of companies. For instance, Berkeley Homes automated manufacturing facility in Northfleet, Kent, will produce modular housing products that roll straight off the assembly line onto trucks, which will deliver them straight to site.

All this comes at a time when asset owners are looking to future-proof their assets. But keeping track of all the changes we face today, from fluctuating demand for certain types of real estate to labour shortages, can seem like an almost insurmountable task. It’s a challenge that Asite can help to solve, however, by ensuring that all the crucial information relating to an asset, from drawings and models to certificates and invoices, is readily available to asset managers across the asset’s entire lifecycle. That means no more time-consuming and expensive audits, and a better ability to execute the right strategy for an asset at the right time.

Speaking of the right strategy, it’s now clear that many businesses in the construction sector feel, like us, that empowering people to work together virtually, supported by the right data and rich collaboration tools, is a step in the right direction. So while the past 18 months have been tough for our industry, the future looks a whole lot brighter.