Digital technology can help Canada address housing, infrastructure challenges: KPMG in Canada

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Ontario Construction News staff writer

Digital technology can help address the backlog of Canadian housing and infrastructure projects bogged down by unprecedented demand and a chronic shortage of skilled labour, a new research from KPMG in Canada concludes.

In a survey of 275 construction companies,  nearly nine in 10 said the lack of skilled labour or trades is impacting their ability to bid on projects and/or meet project deadlines and that digital technology can help make their labour force more effective to address these shortages.

“Technology can help the construction industry address Canada’s housing and infrastructure challenges,” saidTom Rothfischer, partner, building, construction, and real estate, KPMG in Canada. “Digital tools, if used smartly, save time and money, reduce waste, and improve worker safety and productivity. In short, they help get projects done on time or ahead of schedule and on budget.”

Many technologies from the manufacturing sector can be deployed by the construction industry to increase productivity and reduce costs, the report said. For example, 3-D printing technologies in manufacturing have been adapted to the construction industry to lay concrete and build complex steel shapes. Robots can lay bricks and tie steel reinforcement bars.

Also, drone-based surveying could help contractors quickly and accurately layout work, measure quantities, and monitor progress, KPMG found. Building information modelling (BIM) allows project teams to collaborate more effectively to develop innovative solutions to optimize project cost and schedule. Digital twin technologies build on BIM to integrate real-time data from a built asset with its exact 3D virtual replica to test ‘what-if’ scenarios, including the impact of design changes, construction sequencing, weather disruptions, and operational changes.

“We’re seeing a definite recalibration taking place in the construction sector,” Rothfischer said. “While many are still just at the beginning of their digital build, leaders see the power of technology to reshape the way they work and plan to invest heavily in the coming years.

“But having the technology is only half the battle. The real advantage will come to those firms who effectively integrate it into their operations – from the back office to the construction site.”

Key survey findings:

  • 73 per cent think that the construction industry in Canada lags other countries in digital technology adoption
  • 67 per cent say the impacts of the pandemic prompted them to invest in technology
  • 86 per cent agreed that disruptive technologies can generate savings and efficiency, of whom 50 per cent agreed strongly
  • 85 per cent believe disruptive technologies could make their companies more competitive
  • 81 per cent say their management and back-office teams and 80 per cent say their project teams and labour are excited about and supportive of new technologies and approaches
  • 46 per cent plan to spend more than 11 per cent of their corporate operating budget on tech and digital transformation, 33 per cent anticipate spending between 6-10 per cent, and 20 per cent plan to spend up to 5 per cent.

“Leading firms are already adopting technology to improve productivity and project management, safety on worksites, and decision-making,” said Mary Van Buren, president, Canadian Construction Association (CCA). “There is a cost however to investing in digitization that isn’t necessarily shared among all parties in the procurement process.

“Margins are slim in construction, especially for the small- and medium-sized contractors, making it increasingly difficult for them to adopt these types of innovations in their business operations. This is why CCA continues to work with federal departments in an effort to modernize procurement processes that encourage innovation by supporting shared risk.”

The KPMG survey found the Canadian construction industry grappling with a double whammy of unprecedented increased demand for housing and infrastructure projects, and a severe labour shortage that’s challenging the ability of companies to bid on projects and/or meet project deadlines.

To address this, almost all contractors are examining ways to alleviate current labour constraints to meet demands.

The efficient allocation of trades is one of the industry’s most-pressing challenges and opportunities,” said Jordan Thomson, senior manager, infrastructure advisory, KPMG in Canada. “Many companies are deploying or planning to deploy digital tools to better improve efficiency on site and do more with less.

“The application of data analytics, wearables, and internet of thing sensors, and BIM can help to improve productivity, schedule efficiency, and quality, minimize waste, and improve worker safety.”

Also in the survey, 90 per cent of construction companies are currently experiencing a shortage of skilled labour or trades – 94 per cent in Quebec and 86 per cent say that the shortage of skilled labour or trades is impacting their ability to bid on projects and/or meet project deadlines – 94 per cent in Quebec and 90 per cent in B.C.

Also, 86 per cent say that given current labour constraints, they may need to consider other alternatives, such as prefabrication and modularization and/or innovative new tools and machinery (94 per cent in Quebec) and 89 per cent agree that better project management tools, such as analytics, BIM, digital twins, helps to address labour shortages and improves employee productivity

As for solutions, 91 per cent of respondents agreed the education system needs to be “much more flexible” to allow young people to pursue the trades and 77 per cent say that digital transformation will require hiring new talent within their organization to a “great” and “considerable” extent (44 per cent), and to a “moderate” extent (33 per cent).

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