Liam O’Brien
19th December 2019

VR plumbers and AI builders? Let’s take it step by step…

Before I got into Dynamics, you might be surprised to hear that my background was as an electrician – a pretty big career change, some might say. But because of that background, I know what it’s like to be involved in a construction project. Communication is vitally important, but it’s often not as good as it needs to be between sub-contractors on a build: builders, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, landscape gardeners, and so on. And very rarely do you get to see the overall vision for a construction project, which is controlled by the architects and foremen.

That’s something we heard a lot about from Edward Williams, Founder of Edward Williams Architects, at our No Two Industries event in November. He discussed the macro challenges for the construction industry – from communication to climate change. A lot of the presentation was focused on ‘building information modelling’ (BIM) software, which helps architects and designers put together 3D, immersive digital models of construction projects, complete with all the internal systems like heating, plumbing and air conditioning. It cuts down redesign time, encourages collaboration, promotes pinpoint accuracy, and improves digital records. It is brilliant and powerful software.

But one remark in the Q&A struck a chord with me, regarding how to start a conversation about BIM with prospects in the construction trade. Something like BIM may appeal to architects and designers, but it’s a harder sell to smaller building firms. They would still ask, ‘how is this technology going to make our lives easier?’ A lot of workers are already concerned about increasing automation and the threat to their livelihoods, especially with more units being prefabricated.

What’s more, construction is a skilled vocation – a lot of workers in the trade have learned their skills manually, whether it’s bricklaying or plastering. It’s a ‘no-nonsense’ trade, so the idea of fiddling with a tablet or wearing a VR headset on location is hard to take seriously. They don’t want to be laughed off the building site.

All of this means that the ‘big vision’ might not be helpful if you’re trying to sell to smaller construction firms. You’d be trying to get these companies to run before they can walk. You need to focus on improving what they are already doing in small, incremental steps – which is what I wanted to write about today.

‘Appy days

While big, transformative tech investment might seem far off, construction workers do already have technology which you can leapfrog from – primarily, their smartphones. There are loads of ways that IT partners can help construction companies use their existing smartphones, for want of a better word, more smartly.

Think about the processes that builders already have to go through on paper or online – submitting timesheets, logging receipts for materials, communicating with bosses and project overseers. You could automate a lot of these manual processes, using something like Power Apps in Microsoft Dynamics.

Imagine reducing ambiguity in communication by just sending a photo of completed work to your boss for them to check quality. Or submitting a picture of a receipt instantaneously, rather than filling out forms, for quicker reimbursement and error-free accounting.

You could even integrate an AI assistant, to recognise materials in pictures and find prices online. For example, you could take a picture of a building plan with Samsung Bixby and it would identify the materials, quantities, and where you can buy them nearby.

Most importantly, all of this could be done without needing to buy new equipment or desktop software – it could be built in a simple app, with workflows designed in Microsoft Power Apps.

Laying a solid foundation

Construction companies are realising that over time they will need to modernise to compete. Staffing levels in construction have dropped by a quarter of a million since the 2008 financial crash – that’s back down to 1920s levels. So any technology that allows companies to do more work with the same number of employees is a big competitive advantage.

From a reseller point of view, it might not sound that lucrative to sell these kinds of small projects I’m suggesting to construction firms. But by setting up companies on Microsoft Dynamics from an early stage, even with low-value prototype workflows, it will make it easier to integrate new solutions later on. You can prove the usefulness of your solutions, in terms of time savings and higher-value work for employees, and earn trust with the business owners. That trust is important if you want clients to take a leap on the more ambitious and unusual solutions in future.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s doing interesting stuff for construction and engineering clients, so please comment if you have any good stories. Or if you want to talk to me about anything mentioned above, feel free to drop me a message.

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