Going digital – what does it really mean for the construction sector?

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What does ‘going digital’ mean for the architecture, engineering and construction industry in 2023? Claire Rutkowski of Bentley Systems offers some practical thoughts and advice.

Digital transformation is nothing new. While the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry has traditionally lagged behind other industries like consumer electronics and retail, we’re catching up. Resource shortages, accelerating climate change, population growth, aging infrastructure and rapid urbanisation are just a handful of global macro trends driving the industry to change more quickly. And the pandemic proved we can adapt and thrive when a big change is thrust upon us.

In 2023, what does going digital actually mean in the AEC context? For some organisations, going digital means converting paper files to electronic PDFs. Technically, this is simply digitisation, not digital transformation because the data is still locked in file formats, which has limited value. Going digital means so much more than that.

True digital transformation involves reimagining how you do business and taking a customer-driven approach to apply digital processes and create digital outputs. Everything is streamlined, applying technology wherever possible to make things easier and more efficient. For the AEC industry, this can mean anything from using photogrammetry and drones for surveying, inspecting and reality capture, to artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced analytics, recommendation engines and generative and component-based design, to name just a few.

How do you know where you are from a digital perspective? Many maturity models are available from McKinsey, Gartner, and other analyst firms. But those models can get very complicated very quickly. For simplicity’s sake, here’s a three-tiered model to help you easily evaluate your organisation.

Tier one

The least digitally mature organisations are currently working in either 2D only or a hybrid 2D/3D environment to deliver projects, with ambitions to move to 3D across all workflows to improve efficiency, enhance skills sets and increase ROI. These organisations just haven’t done it yet, or only apply 3D when a client requires it.

Tier two

The mid-range maturity organisations are already using 3D models and regularly delivering digital twins and integrated IoT sensor plans with actual assets for their customers. These organisations are focused on going digital to improve their effectiveness, the quality of their deliverables and the outcomes for their clients. And they are gathering reusable data to improve competitiveness at the same time.

Tier three

The most digitally mature organisations not only create but also maintain digital twins, so they are up-to-date virtual representations of specific assets or systems of assets. They focus on improving the quality of their deliverables while reducing time, cost, risk, and meeting sustainability goals. These digitally mature organisations are also tapping into the enormous amounts of data produced by the digital twin, remote monitoring and inspection tools and other sensing devices to highlight areas for improvement or repair to reduce risk and increase safety.

How do you know where you need to be? It really depends on your organisation’s current starting point, appetite for and ability to absorb change and resource availability. As with any maturity model, you can’t go from the lowest level of digital maturity to the highest without moving through the mid-range; there is no easy button on this journey. However, going digital is a process that can be planned and implemented with careful consideration. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

“Regardless of how digitally mature your organisation is in 2023, I encourage you to keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep your destination in your sights, and keep pushing forward.” – Claire Rutkowski of Bentley Systems.

First, if you are currently at a lower level of digital maturity, you can begin to go digital by doing simple things like moving from 2D to 3D design all the time. You can use tools to design with real-time engineering work in progress. You can manage your supply chain collaboration electronically with tools that facilitate easy and safe sharing of information rather than sending things back and forth over email. You can also begin to curate component libraries, which will democratise institutional knowledge and help enforce best practices across your portfolio. The goal should be to improve efficiency across the work you do by reducing document versions, leveraging component-based design, applying automation, and creating consistency for processes.

Here’s another idea. Once the foundational elements discussed above are in place, you are ready to move into the mid-range level of digital maturity. At this level, you will already be realising the gains in efficiency garnered as you moved from 2D to 3D. Now you will be able to focus on increasing your effectiveness and generating more reusable data to improve your competitiveness.

You might even consider extracting insights from across your portfolio. For instance, if you are consistently using components in your designs, now is a good time to look at how effective each of those components performs in physical assets. You may also be able to create recommendations and actions based on remote inspections and remote monitoring.

And lastly, with efficiency and effectiveness well in hand, the most mature organisations have the funding they need to truly make transformational changes. They will be able to offer new business models with IoT-ready digital deliverables. Some firms are already acting as digital integrators, using their experience to bring together multiple vendors and suppliers into single platforms that generate full life cycle digital twins for their clients.

They are also able to create new immersive metaverse experiences and sustainability reporting. In some cases, mature firms are also hosting and maintaining digital twins for their clients and providing dynamic common operating pictures with dashboards and sensor monitoring capabilities that can determine when action needs to be taken or suggest ways to increase energy efficiency and improve sustainability.

Going digital is a necessary journey that we’re experiencing collectively and individually. And for AEC firms and the industry, it won’t be easier, because the challenges we all face are so pervasive. Regardless of how digitally mature your organisation is in 2023, I encourage you to keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep your destination in your sights, and keep pushing forward.

Claire Rutkowski is a senior vice president and chief information officer at Bentley Systems.