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According to a survey conducted by KPMG Canada in partnership with the Canadian Construction Association, three-quarters of construction companies in Canada rate their digital maturity as “fairly low.”Getty Images/iStockphoto

As the digital revolution brings sweeping change across nearly every industry and workplace, Canada’s construction sector is still taking its time, a new survey has found.

According to the survey, conducted by KPMG Canada in partnership with the Canadian Construction Association, three-quarters of construction companies in Canada rate their digital maturity as “fairly low.”

The survey, Construction in a Digital World, was conducted in Canada in November, 2020, to establish benchmarks that can measure the sector’s progress in adopting technology.

Executives at nearly three in five of the companies surveyed report that their organizations “need to moderately or considerably” adapt their digital strategies. Most are unsure about which technologies or applications can help them be more competitive.

In fact, a wide variety of technologies to boost productivity and safety and improve decision-making are already available and new innovations are constantly being developed in the construction sector.

These include drones, robotics, 3D printing, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, building information modelling (BIM), the use of sensors, digital twinning (mapping a project and making changes on a screen), wireless monitoring and augmented reality. Project management software is also available to monitor supply chains and manage workflows – jobs traditionally managed by supervisors using pencils, notebooks and graph paper.

Despite all the new digital tools available, the sector is only now starting to embrace tech, says Lorne Burns, KPMG Canada’s national industry leader, building, construction and real estate.

“Part of it is a mindset that construction techniques haven’t really changed over the years, and these techniques have always worked,” Mr. Burns said.

“This has been changing in the past year, though, as companies and projects have had to manage through the pandemic,” he added.

“Companies that had already been more advanced in technology saw the benefits during COVID-19, such as being able to work remotely [to manage sites] and safely [to keep social distancing]. And those companies that didn’t have a lot of technology discovered that they need to get more.”

The slow pace of change in the sector offers tremendous opportunities for tech companies that can provide innovative products and services, says Lauren Lake, chief operating officer of Bridgit, a Kitchener, Ont.-based company that offers a project management software system.

“Potential financiers warned us that the construction sector is slow to adapt and wouldn’t take to new technology. We decided to find out directly. We went ‘crane hunting’ – we drove around to job sites where there were cranes and asked people what they needed,” says Ms. Lake, an engineer who co-founded the company in 2014 with its chief executive officer Mallorie Brodie.

“We looked at the ‘pain points’ in projects and what kind of tech could make managing them easier.”

The result so far is that Bridgit has grown to 76 employees and its software is being used by 130 customers in projects across North America, Ms. Lake says. The field is wide open.

“We’re competing with Excel spreadsheets and clipboards.”

Many companies resist change because the business model for construction doesn’t lend itself to easy adaptation of new technology, says James McKellar, director of the Brookfield Centre in Real Estate and Infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

“Every single project is one of a kind. They usually go to the lowest bidder and projects often get into situations that aren’t spelled out – you dig and you hit water or environmental problems, for example,” he says.

“It’s never easy building an 80-storey tower. Technology can play a role, but it doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems themselves,” Prof. McKellar adds.

“There are niches where technology changes things – for example, fly-form construction [bringing in premade building components by cranes, helicopters or drones]. The biggest productivity gains came from small things – cordless, hand-held power hammers and saws,” he says. “But people using these tools are still more or less doing what they did before, just faster.”

Encouraging the construction sector to embrace high tech more quickly might require a wholesale overhaul of the way the industry is set up, Prof. McKellar says. “It means looking at everything from the way contracts are drawn up to training labour.”

The KPMG-CCA survey agrees that the business structure of the sector is a hindrance to change. “Many construction firms have had little incentive to invest in technology, with current procurement practices placing much of the project risk and associated costs on the shoulders of contractors,” it says.

Another challenge for Canada is that Canadian firms and projects have catching up to do compared with other countries, Prof. McKellar adds.

“I was in charge of building our new [Schulich] business school building [which opened in January, 2019]. We pioneered a lot of new technology to make the building environmentally sustainable, but a lot of that technology had to come from Germany and our tradespeople had to learn how to work with it,” he says.

Another part of the challenge for construction companies is sifting through what kinds of technology they could benefit from, says Ramtin Attar, CEO of Promise Robotics, which is designing robotic technology to automate housing construction.

“You have to look at what can apply to an individual project compared with what will help a company and what works for the entire industry,” he says.

The new KPMG-CCA survey suggests that companies should focus on three key areas for investing in high tech – managing the supply chain, making sure workers are trained for tech and can adapt, and using tech more effectively to gather and analyze on-site data as projects are built.

This can require considerable investment. As Mr. Burns says, companies looked over their shoulders at tech during the pandemic. But, as the report states, now it’s time to do more.

“As the economy begins to recover, there will be an opportunity for firms to seize an early competitive advantage by adopting digital transformation. With a work force shortage, climate change realities and solutions reaching greater maturity, the industry is poised for significant transformation.”

Survey says

  • Only 23 per cent of companies surveyed say they base their construction decisions on digitally gathered data.
  • 38 per cent say they have no plan yet for cybersecurity.
  • Two-thirds or more firms say they’re still “experimenting” with adaptation of tech for key areas such as managing supply chains or robotics.
  • 64 per cent say their companies’ C-level executives make tech decisions, but they’re not necessarily decisive – because 59 per cent say their organizations need to do more to embrace technology.

Source: KPMG Canada-Canadian Construction Association: Construction in a Digital World: A deep dive into technological adoption in Canada’s construction industry

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