Construction Technology Report 2019: the designers’ view

A recently published ‘Construction Technology Report’ from Newcastle-based NBS presents a view of digital adoption, but is flawed by its narrow focus on building design businesses.

In May 2018, the 2018 (8th) annual BIM survey from NBS presented some data on adoption of common data environment (CDE) platforms by UK-based construction businesses. The data suggested a wide continuum: from 21% of firms using a CDE for all projects, to 28% not using any CDE at all.

Survey responses suggested that Viewpoint’s platform (now part of Trimble’s portfolio) was the most widely used, but I had reservations about how representative the sample was. It over-represented architects (hardly surprising, perhaps, given NBS’s RIBA Enterprises history), and swayed towards building design. This mean those working on the UK’s civil engineering infrastructure (highways, rail, utilities, etc) were under-represented. I felt it potentially downplayed the adoption of tools such as Bentley ProjectWise and GroupBC’s CDE, and overplayed the adoption of generic file-sharing applications such as DropBox, Microsoft’s Sharepoint and Google Drive.

Construction Technology Report 2019

NBS Construction Technology Report 2019For the first time, NBS has undertaken a separate survey looking at the technologies. Recently published, the NBS Construction Technology Report 2019 (available here) is based on quantitative research undertaken in late 2018 to which over 500 people contributed. Little further information about the sample is given though a question (p.13) about internal collaboration is broken down into just two groups: architectural practices and multi-disciplinary practices. Unfortunately, this suggests the survey did not extend to, say, non-architecture design firms, contractors, specialist subcontractors, project managers, manufacturers, clients, etc. Again, NBS results therefore reflect the views of a relatively narrow and building-focused segment of the construction industry.

The sample appears largely positive about the benefits of ‘digitisation’, recognising that a failure to adopt digital technologies could put companies out of business, and accepting that construction lags other sectors in its digital technology adoption (p.11). Clear majorities believed that both internal and external collaboration had changed as a result of technology adoption. Design activities still involve considerable work with documents and spreadsheets (lots of paper on the desk shown on the report’s cover!), referencing standards and specification writing; 2D design (72%)  was still slightly more common than 3D work (67%), but use of ‘project extranets’ or CDEs was only part of the work of 45% of respondents.

The NBS survey then dives deeper into the data for each of these design activities. Perhaps not surprisingly, its sample are prominent users of NBS for specification writing, and the NBS National BIM Library is the most widely used BIM object library (60%), ahead of BIMobject (37%) and BIMstore (36%; post).

NBS Technology Report 2019 graphsThe findings regarding extranets and CDEs were presented in two bar charts. The ‘extranet’ solutions were essentially generic file-sharing platforms: Dropbox (62%), Microsoft’s OneDrive (27%) and Sharepoint (26%), and Google Drive (22%) were all a long way ahead of Huddle and Documentum.

A skewed view of CDE adoption

The most frequently selected construction-specific CDEs came from Viewpoint/4Projects (41%), Autodesk’s 360 range (23%), Asite (22%), Aconex/Conject (18%), and Bentley Projectwise (8%). The high figure for Autodesk may well reflect the popularity of Autodesk design tools among this building-led sample – 69% were users of Autodesk CAD and modelling applications (an industry source told Extranet Evolution: “whilst [360] may be licensed, is it used in anger?”). Similarly, the low figure for Bentley Projectwise follows naturally from the under-representation of infrastructure design in the NBS’s sample.

Next was Deltek/Union Square at 7%. This perhaps further confirms the design-led nature of the sample, as Union Square, acquired by Deltek in 2016, grew largely through adoption by SME design firms of its locally-hosted practice management platform, Workspace, and only gradually extended to ‘extranet’ type functionality as a response to a minority of contractor customers. (A competitor commented: “An internal information management system with drawing register/issuing capabilities doesn’t really constitute a CDE.”)

The NBS’s CDE barchart is completed by Procore (5%) Clearbox’s BIMxtra (3%), GroupBC (2%) and Causeway LiveLink (1%). Heavily backed by investors, US-based Procore has only recently started to market itself in the UK; Clearbox is strongly associated with the UK Tier 1 contractor Kier (post); while GroupBC is another solution extensively used on civil engineering infrastructure projects, and is often ‘white labelled’ by its customers – who include the UK’s biggest contractor Balfour Beatty, fellow Tier 1 players Costain and BAM, retailer Sainbury’s, and Thames Water, among others (see October 2017 post).

Update (9 April 2019) – In a 5 April 2019 blog post by Stephen Hamil, NBS has announced partnerships with some of the companies offering CDEs: “We want to develop a stronger link between the well-structured content within the specification and the tasks that are required by other members of the project team in particular, so they can be tracked in the CDE. … We’re delighted to have announced partnerships with Asite, Autodesk BIM 360, Newforma and Viewpoint.

It’s now about ‘digitalisation’

‘Digitisation’ is the process of converting information into a digital format, and many of the design firm activities described in the NBS Construction Technology Report are clearly in transition from analog practices to being digitally enabled. In his punchy and readable introduction, Stephen Hamil looks to a future where the ‘BIM conversation’ has moved on from a focus solely on the 3D model to “a rich cloud platform of connected technology from multiple providers.” NBS also includes some interesting practice profiles looking at the technology stacks being developed by some design firms. NBS technology offerings such as its cloud-based specification product Chorus (launched in August 2018) are strongly promoted in the document (which ultimately has to be seen for what it is: marketing collateral targeted at NBS’s architecture-led design market).

Digital Built Britain diagramPedantically, perhaps we should be talking more about ‘digitalisation‘: “the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities – the process of moving to a digital business” (to use Gartner’s definition). I have been speaking to audiences recently* about how businesses need to do more than just adopt new technologies – they need to take on the challenge posed in “Digital Built Britain” in February 2015 and start thinking about new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, new business models.

Mark Farmer, author of the October 2016 industry report “Modernise or Die”, spoke at the Irish Embassy in London earlier this week, and was clear about the need for construction businesses to change. If they didn’t, he warned, they could find themselves replaced or bypassed (“be substituted or disintermediated“) by more digitally adept and more integrated organisations. Design businesses like those targeted by NBS will not be immune from these changes – the ongoing shift towards more manufacturing-led approaches to construction will require them to rethink their key business relationships and their supporting processes and information practices.

[* For example, I have been talking at designer-oriented events organised by Specifi; the next of these will be in Leeds on 19 March 2019, followed by Birmingham on 2 April and Nottingham on 30 April.]

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