The difficulties of accessing remote sites, combined with the challenge posed by flight and travel restrictions due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, will result in a fundamental shift in the South African construction industry towards adopting digital assets. With many projects shuttered as a result of the lockdown, the industry is likely to adopt remote working as the ‘new normal’ in order to get these projects up and running again under Alert Levels 3 to 1.
A leader in digital delivery is infrastructure delivery company AECOM, which has a range of tools and solutions to not only allow employees to work remotely, but to also assist its clients in obtaining remote oversight of their project locations. An example of this innovation has been the development of the Digital Technical Quality Review (DTQR) process, a collaboration between AECOM’s Quality and Digital Project Delivery teams across EMEA to streamline the review process inside the cloud-based project environment, Autodesk BIM360.
The DTQR is a solution that enables digital drawing mark-ups/issues and prompts project reviews at key milestones to ensure quality. “This is a much smarter process than the traditional analogue method,” notes Craig Howie, AECOM South Africa Digital Project Delivery Lead. “The fact that all information is captured in a single area means there is a digital record of all activities, like a paper trail without the waste of paper!”
In conjunction with the DTQR is a major drive from the company to move away from office-bound servers to fully cloud-based platforms that can be accessed from any location. While this process has already been underway for some time, especially for all new projects, it has really been given impetus by the Covid-19 crisis. Indeed, Howie says there is now a strong sense of urgency in the construction industry to move to cloud-based solutions for better resilience and collaboration globally.
Another area that has seen considerable investment is modern collaboration and communication tools. “We are definitely using these far more extensively than before, with the main focus on the collaborative potential to be able to have multi-user conversations and work on documents seamlessly across teams,” adds Howie.
The company is also promoting its Reality Capture solution, based on 360° cameras deployed on-site to take high-resolution photographs in strategic areas flagged by the design team. This allows for all relevant project information and updates to be accessible remotely via an app. “It allows the client to visit their site virtually, without having to actually physically go there. Not only is this a huge cost benefit, but it is also highly interactive and therefore the entire professional team can contribute and be involved during all stages,” explains Howie.
“It was important before the Covid-19 crisis and is going to be even more important now due to the restrictions of getting to site. Reality Capture allows us to bring the site to the client and our design teams, so that all involved in a project are up-to-date. In the past, we have always relied on our staff having to travel to site to capture still photos, critical photos were always missed and repeat site visits required, while also being very one-dimensional in nature, so Reality Capture definitely offers a lot of scale and benefit going forward.”
Such remote solutions were already commonplace at the company prior to the hard lockdown, which made the transition to remote working fairly painless. Here the major challenge was ensuring that employees were set-up properly to work from home. Internal surveys were conducted to not only assess employees’ exact needs in this regard, but also to gauge the success of the transition.
“These surveys have been very helpful in terms of the information they have provided, meaning we now have a lot of internal metrics on remote working,” reports Howie. This ranges from how employees access the internet at home, to how many people share a connection, such as spouses also remote working and children researching homework, to bandwidth performance and data download and upload speeds.
“We were able to take 600 employees across our various offices and move them to full remote operation within about a week-and-a-half, while ensuring that the business remained operational at all times, which was not only a major achievement, but also testament to the groundwork that had already been put in place,” stresses Howie. In terms of challenges, a common experience has been that while the office environment provides for a relatively stable network, remote-working employees often have widely divergent internet speeds and data caps, with a certain minimum required for most cloud-based solutions.
“Our digital offering is enabling us to continue working. Obviously the internet speed, stability and amount of data is a big factor in all we do. Not only is this a bit of a stumbling block in South Africa, but we are also faced with very expensive data costs. We as architects and engineers work in a global environment, which means we are competing on a global stage. Internet speed is access to information and therefore the ability to do work. It is really critical that South Africa ensures it has the best internet infrastructure possible, as this is the backbone of so many industries, especially construction and design.”
What gives AECOM a leading edge in digital delivery is what Howie cites as its “unprecedented integration across different industry platforms.” AECOM has some of the largest global enterprise agreements with major vendors such as Autodesk, Microsoft, ESRI and Bentley. “Clients utilising our professional services have seamless access to these platforms, which is a major advantage for their projects and advances their own digital transformation at the same time.”
While the local and international market stands at a difficult moment, with many local projects either on hold or cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis, Howie says that AECOM South Africa has been able to pivot to work in the Middle East, where projects are more active. “This allows us to diversify out of our local market and gain international traction and experience,” highlights Howie. As for the future, he concludes that not only is remote working here to stay, but that digital delivery will gain increasing importance and momentum in the construction industry.