Richard Robinson, chief operating officer at AECOM.

Innovation and tech can usher in new future for construction, says AECOM chief

Combining new delivery models and the smart use of technology can usher in a more productive future for the construction industry, says AECOM's Richard Robinson.

It's no secret that the delivery of critical infrastructure assets is crucial to a country's economic growth and the wellbeing of communities. Yet around the world, infrastructure issues such as highway congestion and unreliable rail networks continue to persist. 

The 500 industry professionals surveyed in AECOM's recently published Future of Infrastructure report say they have suffered significant yet avoidable delays on 40% of recent projects. This could be a thing of the past if a combination of technology and alternative delivery is adopted, both key to tackling the productivity issue and accelerating much-needed projects.  

Currently, many infrastructure projects are slowed down due to inefficient and outdated project delivery methods that lead to delays and schemes that run over time and budget. The effect on the UK economy is damaging, with the cumulative impact of stalled projects during 2015-16 alone projected to dent investment-related GDP to the tune of £35bn. 

There are many reasons why there's often a drag on productivity. A fragmented supply chain with sub-optimal integration across different services is among the top concerns, as well as limited consideration of total cost of ownership or total life-cycle implications. Resistance to change with the project cycle is another issue, along with the effect of low margins on research and development investment. One issue is found in the recent Future of Infrastructure report was limited adoption of new technology and best practices. Worryingly, the report found that only 56% of industry professionals consider themselves “good” at adopting and scaling innovative delivery models.

This all results in a domino effect where buyers get inefficiency, often resulting in delayed projects and poor-quality assets, and suppliers struggle to survive financially. This is despite the fact that there are several tools and approaches available to produce a positive transformation in the delivery of major infrastructure projects. The challenge is to effectively learn lessons from the past, to build a new industry dynamic. 

A two-step approach to solving the productivity issue is needed, which firstly sets up projects differently to incorporate a more integrated approach, linking across the life cycle of an asset and reducing total cost of ownership. This would also create assets that are more constructible and fit for purpose. Secondly, using digital tools to unlock the full power of this integrated approach is essential. 

To achieve the first objective, breaking down the familiar approach of plan, design, build, operate and maintain will be key. Infrastructure organisations should seek to align all objectives and rewards across the supply chain to meet the client’s key success factors. A more honest dialogue around risk is needed, with suppliers providing greater transparency around the true nature of risk in their schemes and infrastructure owners willing to take on risks they are better positioned to manage themselves. 

Well-designed and performance-based partnership models that are incentivised to deliver the best for the project and client are crucial. Ultimately, it's about getting the basics right - robust project setup; streamlined governance; and continuous stakeholder buy-in.

Next in the two-pronged approach is the use of digital tools. These can bring efficiencies in each individual service line as well as enable the full power of an integrated approach. Enhanced and automated value engineering to create a more buildable and operable asset is just one example. 

For example, virtual reality (VR) solutions have the potential to merge separate delivery phases by offering an interactive and easily accessible digital design model. AECOM has used this technique on projects as diverse as the Wessex Capacity project at Waterloo and the Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, enabling us to deliver schemes more efficiently than ever before. This technology enabled stakeholders to walk through a design in the virtual environment and provide immediate feedback. Other benefits include the ability to remove safety hazards, optimise build sequence and schedule and minimise the need for re-work. 

Other digital tools that are growing in impact include artificial intelligence that replaces repetitive manual tasks and provides a more reliable outcome.  This enables new construction techniques such as the use of modular construction, 3D printing and increased use of robotics. Asset intelligence is also on the up. 

Capturing operational data is nothing new, but the volume of data and the ability to effectively analyse and draw conclusions is taking a step change when AI and other data mining techniques are coupled with today's computing power. This allows new tools to capture and analyse performance data to drive more efficient operations and truly feed back into future designs. 

After years of industry wrestling with the productivity gap, the time has come to fully embrace innovation and take the necessary step forwards to accelerate delivery. We now have the keys to unlock the future - and they lie in the combination of new delivery models and the smart use of technology.

Richard Robinson is the chief operating officer at AECOM.