IS YOUR FIRM KEEPING PACE?
BY AMY DREW THOMPSON
The construction industry has a rep for being slow on the tech uptake. We asked Gonzalo Galindo why.
“It’s the million-dollar question,” he replies.
Galindo is the CEO of CEMEX Ventures, the venture capital arm of CEMEX, a member of multiple AGC chapters. His team focuses on many aspects of the industry — construction technology among them. He explains the myriad factors that he says make it difficult for the industry to evolve, but notes that you can’t talk about construction — one of the biggest industries in the world — as a unit.
“High-rise, highway, dams, housing,” he rattles off, “when you start peeling the different layers of the onion, each one has different chal-lenges, different people, different objectives in every segment….”
Galindo says construction is often compared to the auto industry, so often credited with sweeping change, “but that change took a lot of time.”
Time, he and others note, that could be running out for firms that don’t take tech seriously.
Curtis Rodgers is matter-of-fact.
“If, in the next 10, 20 years, your company does not have tech-literate people in its senior ranks, you’re screwed.”
Rodgers is a principal at Brick & Mortar Ventures, a global venture capital firm focused on what the company frames beautifully as “the built world.” That means construction and design. Maintenance. Heavy industries. Anything expeditionary.
Tech is expeditionary, of course, as it’s continually developing. But it’s a moving train you should have jumped on by now. Many firms have.
Some pros Constructor spoke with speculated that the industry’s reputation for tech lag is due to the difficulty of getting a project’s many stakeholders on the same page. Rodgers balked.
“Most firms have a dedicated individual for new tech and process improvement,” he says. “A solutions manager, innovations manager, BIM manager….” If yours does, good. That means they’re working through problems and are motivated to solve them — and these days, solutions abound.
“We call that solution abundance,” says Rodgers. “And only now has it advanced to the point where technology works in such a challenging environ-ment. And companies who embrace and understand it are doing very well.”
Reality capture is one of these abundant solutions, an area that Rodgers says has evolved incredibly in just the past year.
“The amount of data that can be collected and communicated to people on site, who can visit the project virtually, has greatly accelerated,” as have the number of solution providers in this arena, says Rodgers. “It’s all gone to the next level.”
For an owner perspective, he says, “if you produced an early estimate or design and then proceeded with a project, today’s tech would allow you to take that 3D design, put it into the system and then compare the progress versus the plan versus the design…. You can literally see how good your esti-mate was and get a team working immediately to build the next one better.”
COVID-19 saw major disruption of the supply chain across industries and construction’s handle on it has been tenuous in the past, says Galindo, noting it’s a place in the industry that’s ripe for innovation.
“Coordinating so many different materials with so many different production schedules, lead times, trucks and so on. It’s not necessarily easy.”
The pandemic, he believes, will be a wake-up call.
“There will be winners here who take advantage by moving fast and embracing the need for using different types of technology to get ahead during COVID-19. Others will talk more than walk.”
The spaces that continue to see leaps are often reflected amid the winners of CEMEX’s Startup Competition, which has a category for digital innovation. In the past, products for site scheduling and management or environmental needs have come up with awards.
“It’s usually a reflection of the pain points in the industry,” says Galindo. “This year, it’s a different ballgame. But either way, it’s a great way for entre-preneurs to show off — even if they don’t win.”
When David Broomhead was painting houses back in his native Australia, he noted the less-than-ideal ways in which his employer was finding help.
“There was no link for contractors to find workers and workers to find jobs. The product didn’t exist,” says Broomhead, who co-founded Trade Hounds to fill this market niche. He’s also the company’s CEO.
Adoption of the platform has been swift, faster even than Broomhead and CFO/cofounder Peter Maglathlin expected. But when you consider the strug-gle for contractors looking for skilled labor — and the fact that their LinkedIn-like platform has been downloaded by roughly 150,000 tradespeople — maybe not so much. The “Hounds” on this app find camaraderie that’s different than others.
“Construction is a really large industry, but also very unique,” says Maglathlin. “Being in a forum where people really understand them and speak the same language is important. On Facebook and other platforms, they’re not necessarily talking about work, but on Trade Hounds, they’re wearing a digital hardhat. It’s a really vibrant, engaged community.”
Broomhead believes there will also be opportunity to fold in new, skilled blood as those searching for work post-pandemic begin to fold into the skilled trades. Maglathlin believes Trade Hounds, which effectively does what LinkedIn did for white-collar workers, is the bridge to connect talented people with
the companies so desperately searching.
“It allows [tradespeople] to be digital, discoverable,” he says. “They can create an enduring professional identity. And what most companies want ac-cess to is the 85-90 percent of the workforce that is employed, good at their jobs and willing to consider new opportunities.
“It’s imperative to solve the problem of finding skilled workers to allow their businesses to keep growing. This technology does that.
Tech is also making construction cooler, says Rodgers, who is certified in Space Construction and Space Mining by the Aerospace Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“That marked for me the first time that aerospace engineers were interested in civil engineering for anything other than launch facilities and that’s a re-ally exciting thing!”
It’s taxpayer funded; Rodgers urges those interested to tap into that public knowledge source.
“It can be really great for recruiting young students who are trying to figure out what they want to do because it’s inspiring. Many of the things we fig-ure out on earth are going to be useful in space and vice versa.”
All of it equals more growth, he says, but without tech that blooms first in a firm’s culture, way before any “abundant solution” even comes into play.
Companies must invest in their employees’ abilities and technical aptitudes if they’re going to compete, he says. It’s a practice that needs to be adopted at all levels, perhaps most importantly the highest.
“An individual engineer or project making some innovation is great,” he explains. “The client will be happy; the project will be successful. But in order to have a system take advantage of these technologies, you need to have senior leadership.”
Executives, he says, are the ones who can appreciate how technology can be used to create new business models, units, markets.
“That has a significant impact on the profitability and revenue and risk of your business. Senior leadership is making decisions based on what they know. And if they’re not tech literate, they won’t appreciate the competitive advantage that technology brings to the company.”
And they’re the ones who have the authority to reorganize things around that advantage.
Beyond that, he notes, support staff need to recognize the same things that those on the jobsites do: there’s no one size fits all solution.
“IT is trying to maintain the technology so it actually works,” says Rodgers. “And generally, they want to have one configuration for all pro-jects.”
Some are similar, he says. Others need unique solutions.
The moral here: Companies with leadership who understand technology and techs who understand the complexities of construction are built to live long — and prosper.