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Do the software geeks get it?

Recently, various publications have printed a flurry of articles stating the need for continued automation enhancements in the construction industry. In addition, recent events have focused on this issue. Attendance at these events allows for firsthand observation and conversation with key practitioners in the industry to gauge a response to this new technology.

Adoption in some areas has been extensive, particularly by large firms looking to make an impression with clients – particularly large, high-tech ones. However, there appears to be significant resistance to adoption in many sectors. Several significant issues seem to be impeding this technology, even though they appear on the surface to have potential to significantly increase productivity.

Small to medium-size practitioners say that the training hurdle is still significant. These programs require dedicated individuals who are not available to provide services to other parts of the business. That means that the investment in the system is not only in the software itself, but also in one or more individuals who provide the interface between these automation systems and the rest of the business. That increases costs substantially.

Automation systems are not yet intuitive. They require specialized knowledge of both computers and the systems themselves. This means that the executives and owners of these firms who have heretofore been able to provide general control over their business must now relinquish control to a computer system and individuals who may not have similar backgrounds. In fact, these individuals may not have a background in construction at all.

Interoperability between systems is still a significant issue. For example, Autodesk and Micro Station programs cannot easily talk to each other. That means that a supplier must commit to either or both systems, depending on which one its clients have adopted.

A commitment to both is a significant investment. In some cases this means that the supplier may no longer pursue work with clients who adopt the system that the supplier has chosen not to invest in. It is essential that the problem of interoperability be addressed and that simple transfer between various vendors be a fundamental part of construction automation.

Systems can no longer be purchased outright. Programs are sold by “seats,” which require an annual licensing fee. These fees range from a few thousand dollars to perhaps as much as $10,000. As noted above, when combined with the labor that is required to service the system, an initial investment of potentially close to $100,000 is necessary to make these products feasible and efficient.

The software industry may not reflect the fragmented and small business nature of the construction industry. It does not appear that will change in the foreseeable future. While there are small software developers, it appears that most of the automation software is provided by a few large firms. The business environment of these firms is quite different than the one of the small businesses that dominate the construction industry.

Software suppliers must understand the business needs and limitations of the construction industry in order to more efficiently penetrate the market. Few price points and products meet our industry’s specific needs. Price points are high and the products are vast and more comprehensive than necessary to meet the needs of many industry players.

It’s clear that the construction industry must increase its efficiency and productivity to provide services that are cost-effective and reflective of our economic needs. To do so, it must use the latest in automation technology. Those software providers that understand the construction industry’s business structure will be the first to see their bottom lines benefit.

Christian Steinbrecher is president of Ukiah Engineering Inc., a senior consultant at Capital Project Consultants and president of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Oregon section. Contact him at cfs@ukiahengineering.com.

About Christian Steinbrecher