Anyone who studies history understands that to look back is to look forward, and it seems construction technology follows suit. As construction is rapidly moving into a digital-first world, companies are seeing major shifts in the ways technology helps them streamline practices, reinvent personnel and equipment management and even use virtual and augmented reality to ideate, construct and maintain their buildings. The speedy pace of innovation has heads spinning, often leaving companies feeling a sense of fear from a lack of control.
But as technology pushes forward to modernize construction, could an innovation from the past provide construction with the next big thing that helps everyone stay in control?
Operating System Unification
Construction needs unification, and a construction operating system is what the industry should be looking to develop. To build the projects of the future, construction will need to connect people, technology (think: device agnostic) and software. An operating system, providing that connectivity, would remove the friction of development, data extraction and usability from construction and in turn, give construction companies much more than increased collaboration by establishing unity, uniformity, data security and eye-opening insights.
From the architect and engineer to the project manager on the jobsite and the subcontractor pouring the concrete, imagine everyone working off the same data, seamlessly connected and contributing to construction’s evolving landscape. But first, it’s important to understand the history of this technology.
ERP Systems in Construction
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ERP systems entered the purview of companies who wanted a “one-stop shop” to combine their functions, streamline operations and aggregate important data.
With complex business needs, these ERP solutions provided off-the-shelf solutions that required businesses to tailor them to fit their unique business practices. In many cases, companies were forced to re-engineer their business processes to accommodate the logic of the software. It became a necessary and arduous task for companies to streamline data flow throughout their organizations.
Construction fell victim to the ERP system, having to force unique, carefully orchestrated processes into the shackles of limited software functionality. The virtual “shoe” never really fit. How could a system built for a less-chaotic industry meet the needs of an industry as complex as construction?
Born from frustration, point solutions were then developed to fill the gaps in areas ERP systems (even those patched together with easy-break code) just couldn’t perform. Originally built to solve one particular problem, when new or multiple problems arise, new point solutions are born.
Given that construction uncovers about 100 or more new “problems” a day, these singular solutions quickly become plural––opening the door to bigger management issues. All of these singular solutions, living in every corner of the business, house important information on which companies need to share or collaborate.
In addition, multiple stakeholders need to have access to multiple point solutions and are forced to duplicate data so that every system has the most up-to-date information. This, in turn, opens the door to the next issue. How can companies cobble together all these singular point solutions so that collaborators can collaborate, data can flow between all the systems and issues can be properly tracked?
Integrated systems allow users to perform various unique functions with bi-directional data flow so that users can collaborate, share information, track key data and only have to enter information once. Using an integrated platform helps construction reduce data entry mistakes, breaks down communication issues and streamlines processes.
However, many solutions were not built to integrate. In the fast-paced world of construction technology, developers often have a single-minded approach to building their solutions. If the solution was not built to be extensible (i.e., have an open API), it is limited in usability when trying to integrate with systems it wasn’t built for. So is this two steps forward and one step backward when it comes to construction technology?
Not literally of course. But if construction looks back to the early 1980s, there was a tremendous shift in technology that opened up the world of computing: the operating system. Made famous by Micro-soft (before the hyphen dropped), a “universal” operating system allowed competing vendors to license the operating system and then create hardware of their own, in which a hardware and software ecosystem evolved.
Since the operating system could connect the hardware to software developed for various singular tasks like creating Word documents, or Excel spreadsheets (or apps for project management), companies didn’t have to worry about building out complex “brain” code and reinventing the wheel. They could connect software designed for their needs and count on a standardized operating behavior that laid the foundation for their success.