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K. Tonning: Digitalisation of European Construction Industry
2019 May 27

What is digital construction and what is the EU doing about it?

In Europe, the construction industry is experiencing a significant transition to digital construction.  Some other parts of the world are ahead and some are way behind.  The pace of change in Europe needs to be accelerated and although there are countries showing best practice, in general we are slow in starting and really adopting digital construction.  But what do we mean by digital construction?  Broadly, in the European construction federations representing the interests of contractors in the EU, we mean the use of digital technologies and tools to design, construct, maintain and renovate; and live more healthy lives, consuming less energy and resources in our built environment.  We mean collaboration in the construction value chain and new business models. We believe that digital construction can help to deliver key policies under all the main EU priority areas: digital economy, energy efficiency, circular economy, climate change, demographic changes, health and safety, education, training, etc.  BIM is a key technology in the digital tool box, but not the only one. Building Information Modelling and or “Management”/”Model” depending on the context, is digital design and modelling of buildings and infrastructure, which, when used and shared effectively, allows complete and up-to-the-minute information about buildings in particular, but also infrastructure,  to be shared amongst all parties that need it. BIM supports all stages of the life cycle and ideally needs to be fed, with real-time data collected, shared and processed by users.  In the near future – in some cases already – we can expect to see robots and construction machinery transmitting data, to each other and back to the model.  In the medium term, Artificial Intelligence will use BIM data to make predictions, which will support contractors in their decision making.

Digital construction and industrialisation are two sides of the same coin.  Although we do not expect all construction to take place off site in future, in factories for example, we do expect to see the increased use of pre-fabricated components. We also expect to see construction jobs change, but not necessarily disappear.  We expect lower skilled jobs to be supported by cobots (collaborative robots), transforming manual tasks into those of a robot operator.   Contrary to the fears that are being expressed in the media, we expect such technology to make construction jobs safer, more enjoyable, more desirable; to the extent that younger people will want to come into the industry.
EU actions supporting digital transformation in construction

Although construction was not included in the first phase of the Digitising European Industry initiative, the industry’s economic importance on the one hand and need for faster adoption of available technologies on the other hand have been recognised by the European Commission, which has responded accordingly.  As well as considering construction as a future priority sector for digitalisation support programmes, the European Commission recently launched a Co-ordination and Support Action, to pave the way for a future digital industrial platform for the industry, at EU level. This action will study the needs of the entire industry, of all stakeholders including clients, taking into account national platforms that already exist on the one hand and gaps that need to be addressed on the other.  FIEC is a partner in an industry-wide consortium that has submitted a proposal to the European Commission.  The decision is expected by the end of March 2019.


How is FIEC supporting its members through the transformation?

Following a conference for members on BIM in 2016, FIEC launched a Working Group on BIM and produced a manifesto in 2017 “Making BIM a Global Success”. http://www.fiec.eu/en/library-619/fiec-manifesto-on-bim.aspx As other issues emerged very quickly, such as robotics and pre-fabrication, it was decided after one year to widen the scope of the group and it is now the Working Group on Construction 4.0.  “Construction 4.0” is the industry term for the construction sector’s “branch” of Industry 4.0, the term widely used to describe the fourth industrial revolution, characterised by digitalisation.  The current work programme includes a couple of key priorities.  The first is collaboration with universities and other training providers to encourage them to update their curricula, including the new skills required for digital construction.  The second is a position or guidelines for contractors on data. On the one hand, we are asking the EU to tackle the many issues that are arising around data: format, privacy, ownership, cybersecurity, accessibility etc., and on the other hand we recognise that some of these issues need to be addressed by the contracts between contractors and their clients.  We are currently working on a document and we expect to publish it later this year.

As well as the internal work in FIEC, we have led a number of initiatives with other EU federations representing the construction value chain.  In 2018, 23 such federations produced the European Construction Industry Manifesto for Digitalisation “Smarter Construction, Stronger Economy, Inclusive Society”.http://www.fiec.eu/en/library-619/joint-manifesto-on-digitalisation-from-the-construction-industry.aspx These federations are continuing the dialogue and the European Commission is a key partner.  With the European elections a matter of weeks away, FIEC’s wider manifesto for the new political term 2019-2024 includes the key theme of Construction 4.0; and existing and newly elected MEPs will be contacted as part of the wider lobbying effort for the industry, to emphasise the importance of an effective and accelerated transition to digital construction.

FIEC President’s message for Lithuanian BIM developers and contractors

A critical success factor is collaboration across the value chain.  Traditionally, this chain was made up of those actors involved in designing, constructing, maintaining and renovating and eventually demolishing buildings and infrastructure.  Increasingly, those managing the use phase are vital players in digital transformation, as smart buildings become the norm, with technology available to support healthy and energy efficient life styles of residents and workers using buildings. Then there are the new actors, the software developers, the robotics experts, the Artificial Intelligence researchers, the blockchain providers etc.  These new players have expertise that we need, but they need traditional construction value chain partners as much as we need them.

It is counter productive for each partner in the value chain – both traditional and emerging – to work alone.  All of these actors should be finding solutions together to ensure that digital construction becomes the status quo.

For our FIEC member the Lithuanian Construction Association and for its partners, we can support the activities in Lithuania by including national experts in our working groups and offering support and knowledge of progress towards digitalisation at EU level, as well as our role in Brussels as a key influencer for the industry, with our contacts in the EU institutions.


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