After a year of widespread project delays and cancellations, many walls and ceilings contractors will be looking for more certainty in 2021. While there have been many jokes made around the misery of 2020, construction pros can agree on one positive: the value of construction technology is no longer up for debate.
Many estimators, project managers, and contractors found themselves relying more on Zoom and digital tools as they were forced to do more bidding and planning of projects from their home offices. The Associated General Contractors of America survey of contractors last summer found that more than half (52 percent) of large firms and a third (33 percent) of midsized firms had increased learning programs with a strong online or video component, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
For some contractors, it was a rude awakening to suddenly realize they didn’t have enough software licenses for their estimators or their VPNs lacked bandwidth. Suddenly, everyone was leaning on cloud-based web apps—from email to file-sharing platforms to chat and team meeting apps. Consider that Zoom went from hosting an average of 10 million meetings daily in 2019 to more than 200 million daily users in March 2020.
COVID and Competition Drives Adoption
No matter your trade, economic uncertainty has likely caused backlogs to slip and brought greater competition to every project. For some, adding new construction tech next year could help to improve how they bid and win projects and ensure more efficient workflows.
Even before the coronavirus, construction tech was both disrupting and driving change in preconstruction. If 2020 was any indicator, 2021 could be the year that finally loosens up those tech budgets. For many years, JBKnowledge found that most construction firms were dedicating less than 1 percent of their annual sales volume to IT, based on their annual ConTech survey.
COVID, however, has been a game-changer. According to commercial real estate firm JLL’s latest State of Construction Tech, the construction industry in 2020 adopted in one year what would normally have taken three years—thanks to the pandemic.
Much of the technology adopted in the past year will likely endure beyond COVID, according to Henry D’Esposito, senior analyst for construction research at JLL. He believes that this last year taught the construction industry how technology can create an advantage for those who are willing to invest and learn how to use it.
Time to Ditch Disjointed Workflows
As COVID-19 spread across the globe last year, many in construction were still relying on bidding workflows that were a mishmash of emails, spreadsheets, and document management tools. Consider everything that goes into bidding—quantity takeoff, gathering material and labor costs, checking vendor qualifications, and clarifying design issues.
Will contractors continue to trust all these project details to such disjointed workflows? More specifically, spreadsheets, which can often be rife with outdated data or prone to keystroke errors. In 2019, the ConTech Report took a deep dive into workflows and found spreadsheet usage had only dropped by 1 percent from the previous year.
According to JLL’s D’Esposito: "The jump in tech adoption this year has exacerbated the gap between those who are leading in the adoption of new tools and those who are falling behind. Those who already had the technology in place had a much easier time moving projects forward despite the disruption this year.”
Technology is the Great Equalizer
For the construction industry to emerge stronger post COVID, consultants McKinsey & Company predicts a shift to more remote ways of working. They believe BIM and integrated collaboration tools will fuel a drive toward increased digitization.
They cite increased productivity as the driver behind digital tools, digital workflow management, real-time progress tracking, and scheduled optimization. They say there will be increased spending as building systems become standardized, speeding up elements of design and construction.
Of course, construction tech is a broad category. This includes everything from software like digital takeoff and estimating to online bid board and bid management apps to equipment like autonomous heavy equipment, drones, and robots. Not to mention tool management software and cutting-edge tech, such as augmented and virtual reality and 3-D printed buildings.
In the past year, JLL found a widening adoption of digital collaboration, scanning, safety, wearables, building information modeling and computer-aided design. They also cite moderate growth related to drones, jobs and employment, robotics, augmented and virtual reality and digital twins.
Move Outside Your Comfort Zone
Viewing construction tech as just another tool in your toolbox will be critical in the coming year. The construction industry can expect to be touched by cloud software, mobile apps, and innovative hardware. As spreadsheets and file cabinets are phased out, those who don’t educate current staff or create new roles to support data optimization may be left behind.
With the right technology, contractors can simplify how they secure reliable subcontractors, complete takeoffs and estimates, and organize their bids. For example, general contractors are already finding it more efficient and productive to connect their data via a platform that can send both invitations to bid (ITBs) and handle prequalification of subcontractors.
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