Technology adoption is a must for the building construction industry

It is emerging that technology is rapidly taking center-stage in building construction around the world, and especially in Africa as depicted during the recent AutoDesk Forum in Nairobi, Kenya themed The Future of Making. It emerged during varied presentations that Kenya has stolen the race of technology adoption and is steadily running ahead of the pack, disrupting the way business is done in the building and construction enviroment. 

In one-on-one interview with Simon Romfield, Territory Manager for Autodesk Africa, I sought to find out the extent of change in the people-driven building construction sector from a tech-front and why it may be necessary for the industry stakeholders to act fast before they end-up in a disruption conundrum.

Here are excerpts of that interview;

Welcome to CIO East Africa, Simon. Let’s begin by introducing yourself to the reader?

My name is Simon Romfield, and I’m the Territory Manager for Autodesk Africa. My role in the organization is to look after all our customers in the entire continent of Africa. My engagements stretch all the way from Rabat, Morocco to Cape Town in South Africa, not to mention the West Coast all the way to the East Coast of Africa, all for the sake of adding value to our customers.

The building and construction industry stakeholders during an AutoDesk Forum hosted in Nairobi, Kenya.

What is your opinion on the use of technology, and its uptake to actualize buildings that are coming up today in the African marketplace?

When we first entered the Kenyan market about two years ago, one of the things we discovered was the fact that technology uptake was happening gradually but without consistency in its adoption. Right now though, two years later, the scenario is quite the opposite. Today it delights to note that there’s a consistency in adoption of disruptive technology and the uptake rate is equally rapid.

My advice to companies involved in the construction process; please be the disruptors. Don’t be the disrupted. The moment you decide to adopt a technology that you can use to advance rapidly, it allows you to stay ahead and actually disrupt the industry.

For one, Kenya is certainly leapfrogging other more advanced markets in the world in the manner in which technology is being adopted locally. Some of the technological considerations already being taken into account here are perhaps not even in European countries and other first world economies. It is truly exciting to see this development here.  

What are these technological elements you have seen taken up in Kenya as the case may be?

I’d take the example of design automation and the use of advanced software to solve technological problems we’ve had in the past. One of the biggest challenges in the construction sector has always been the time involved and the processes of conceptualization of the designs for a project. Well, in the past, someone would design a building and pay for the same alongside the construction cost. Unfortunately, you’d always find flaws and mistakes in the end product because the design process may have been flawed as well due to the unresolved issues in the design software used. Well, most people would accept the situation and try to rectify the errors using manual interventions. But gone are those days when building designs would have glaring mistakes. 

The industry can only accept accurate designs that have been effectively presented and interrogated for any failures and weaknesses; and the same streamlined to good measure. This will often have the effect of eliminating the expensive cost of having to eradicate problems that come with designs that have not been generated from the most advanced software.

You can imagine sending someone back to a project to correct a design-oriented mistake that is seen on the end product, like deconstructing a building or a column. For sure, it’s expensive and time consuming indeed. Technology allows us to take this entire process into account, and build what is often referred to as a digital twin of the building.

You can imagine sending someone back to a project to correct a design-oriented mistake that is seen on the end product, like deconstructing a building or a column. For sure, it’s expensive and time consuming indeed. Technology allows us to take this entire process into account, and build what is often referred to as a digital twin of the building.

In a digital twin, we have the benefit and the privilege of interrogating the actual building even before it is constructed; and the digital twin of the building allows us to see how everything will fit together so we can make sure there are no mistakes on the end product. I see all these taking shape steadily in Kenya compared to other locations. 

Are there any past challenges in the design of buildings that you may say has been addressed effectively with these emerging technologies?

One of the biggest challenges in East Africa currently is the housing deficit that is often reported for all to see. It is a major challenge. Every year we build new mortar and brick houses, which still end up not being enough to satisfy the growing population. There’s an obvious strain on the construction of buildings at large. But by using advanced technology, we can speed up the design processes to ensure we construct buildings far more efficiently and faster.

We recently saw from the Construction Authority Day that if we can implement software correctly, then it’s possible to speed up the construction delivery time and to reduce costs significantly.

Currently, the government of Kenya is keen on housing as a primary agenda for the nation, with clear targets to attain. What role do you foresee Autodesk playing in this agenda, besides engaging those who are key facilitators in the process including architects and contractors?

Sometimes it sounds quite simple to build, say, 250,000 housing units annually, as the government of Kenya has often clearly stated. What we do not often take into account when developing this thought is the infrastructure available to provide the right foundation for this objective to be realistically achieved. In the absence of a proper road network, sewerage systems, power grid, it becomes quite a monumental challenge to achieve this goal, no matter the involvement of architects and key players in the process.

In order to succeed in such a huge assignment, we must bring on board the authorities involved in ensuring we have good roads, sewerage systems, electricity and water and broadband infrstructure so that their contribution in the process will ensure we have an all-round approach to the agenda. This approach would lead to us to secure a seamless end-to-end process of delivering the units needed to meet the housing demand in the country and the region at large. This journey has already begun, but there is still a long way to go.

In your view, what role would artificial intelligence and machine-learning actively play in all these processes?

Interestingly, quite a number of people are still or seemingly scared of artificial intelligence and machine learning follong the thought that robots are perhaps going to take away jobs. However, I believe that with automation, and with artificial intelligence at play, we can actually improve the quality of our output, and even in some instances shorten the duration of time used for certain activities. It’s just an opportunity of doing a better job while delivering on various projects and assignments.

With artificial intelligence, we could deliver first on a project, then focus our energies on remaining days to better the project and improve on areas that need reconsideration. In a nutshell, Artificial Intelligence isn’t a bad thing. It is something we ought to embrace because eventually, it will take center-stage at some junction in the entire building construction processes.

Considering that advancing technology has affected multiple industries and has not spared the mortar and brick which has been with us from time immemorial, what’s your advice to the authorities going forward? 

Change is not simple but is inevitable particularly in the construction arena. Since advancing technologies has affected multiple industries, it will continue doing so in the construction industry. Today, instead of relying solely on skills, blueprints, and a few tools to turn raw material into masterpieces, workers have an entirely different resource available, which they must seize, explore them and deploy them.

There wouldn’t be a better time to adopt the emerging technologies lined to streamline processes, making many construction projects quicker, easier, and more accurate. It is time to look at some of the more dramatic changes to technology and how each plays a role in the ever-changing landscape of the construction industry. Building Information Modeling (BIM) is for instance one of the most notable of all technologies now used in construction that stakeholders need to take its full advantage following its virtual building models with extreme precision. The collaborative and drafting software is ideal.

Lastly, but not the least what in your opinion should the Kenyan Authorities and stakeholders involved in projects aimed at mitigating the demand for housing in the country do in order to deliver?

It needs to come out clearly that technology is going to disrupt the way we undertake our activities in the building construction industry, and any other industry for that matter. When a thought is given to how inefficient the construction industry is at the moment, technology will surely disrupt our way of doing business. The industry is actually ripe for disruption.

My advice to companies involved in the construction process; please be the disruptors. Don’t be the disrupted. The moment you decide to adopt a technology that you can use to advance rapidly, it allows you to stay ahead and actually disrupt the industry.