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‘The future of construction work is remote’: how the industry is preparing for a digital future

The construction industry has been taking steps towards digital transformation for a while, but the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the process. The Drum finds out how the industry is ramping up the adoption of tools that use artificial intelligence and cloud-based technologies to integrate the construction process.

The Covid-19 pandemic decimated the construction industry in Singapore in 2020 as worksites came to a grinding halt amid the circuit breaker, with the virus spreading among migrant worker dormitories, infecting almost half of Singapore's migrant workers' population.

According to Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) data, construction demand (the total value of construction contracts awarded) in Q1 2020 declined by 21% compared to Q4 2019.

The situation saw bigger construction companies with resources tide over the circuit breaker, Singapore's official lockdown term, and prepare for the reopening of the economy, but smaller companies struggled with the lack of work and workers.

The Singapore government had to step in to help the industry with grants and help like foreign worker levy waiver and rebate, as well as a one-off compensation of $100 a day for returning workers who were initially put on quarantine in hotels.

With work resuming since June 2020, companies have turned their focus to comply with the strict safety management measures to continue work at existing construction work sites. The industry is also trying to adapt to the new normal with digitisation and accelerating the adoption of labour-efficient construction technologies.

Hubble, a tech company in the construction and engineering industry, was tasked by BCA and IMDA in 2019 to build Singapore’s first construction digital platform, called The Hubble Platform. As the pandemic hit, it pivoted to build the BuildSG-CovidSafe platform to help the construction industry to be Covid-safe and ready for a restart.

“We modified The Hubble Platform and added features to help companies monitor workers’ health and medical status, ensure proper safe distancing through Bluetooth wearables and artificial intelligence cameras, and technology that alerts firms in cases of safe management measures (SMM) breaches,” explains Lin Shijing, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Hubble.

“The platform also helps worksites with on-site submission of reports and immediate results of inspected worksites. It also has a data analytics feature that identifies high-risk areas and project common non-compliance trends.”

Yong Derong, the executive director, Woh Hup Pte Ltd, one of Singapore largest and oldest privately owned construction and civil engineering companies, says Hubble provided the catalyst for the firm to press on with its digitalisation efforts.

He explains The Hubble Platform gave the company an end-to-end workflow solution to manage the vast amount of information passing through various stakeholders.

For example, The Hubble Platform has a feature called Building Information Modeling (BIM), which gives architects, developers and engineers insight into a project via a 3D model-based process.

This to address the problem of BIMs not being built the same, leading to fragmentation within different stakeholders as a contractor must have the same BIM software with the project architect to collaborate effectively.

When construction companies use The Hubble Platform, it offers a shared BIM model view on its web platform, doing away with specialised 3D model viewer software.

“This was throughout the entire lifecycle of all our projects. This ensures consistent, seamless and accurate data transfer at different stages. It also promotes greater transparency among stakeholders to identify any inefficiencies in our current processes and employ mitigation measures where necessary,” says Yong.

Yong adds The Hubble Platform also solves one of the most crucial pain points in the industry which is the skilled manpower shortage. The problem was exacerbated during the circuit breaker where thousands of migrant workers were not able to re-start work.

Woh Hup was able to circumvent unskilled labour and push its current workforce to be digitally trained by using the platform to employ future-tech such drones to inspect buildings, 3D-printed prefabricated materials and an automated project management system, ensuring materials are delivered on time.

“We believe that this will translate to a measurable increase in productivity as well as time- and cost-savings for us in the future as we progress towards a digitalised built environment industry together,” Yong explains.

Hubble’s Lin says the platform envisions a future for the construction industry where drone operators, heavy machinery operators will do their jobs from remote locations around the world – in air-conditioned offices.

“Materials are pre-fabricated in robot-fuelled factories and delivered via driverless delivery systems. Project managers, engineers and architects are alerted at every phase of the project schedule,” he adds.

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