How Singapore's building firms can become regional leaders

ASIA is the place to be if you are a construction company. Experts predict the region's share of global construction will reach 40 per cent by 2024, with a nominal value of US$2.4 trillion. Every Singaporean construction company will be looking around the region and wondering how to get a piece of this enormous pie.

Fortunately Singapore firms are becoming more competitive and better able to win regional work. There are significant changes taking place right now, which together have the potential to lift the Singapore construction industry to a position of regional leadership.

Productivity boosted by digital construction

The tightening of foreign labour restriction in 2009 has transformed an industry long reliant on extremely labour-intensive processes. The change has forced Singapore companies to become more competitive, so they can build faster, more efficiently and with a quality product.

The catalyst for this boost in productivity is digital construction. Digital construction puts technology at the centre of all the steps required to design, construct and operate a building. It is a way of working that is less reliant on labour. It is more efficient as it allows companies with differing specialities to work collaboratively together to win larger contracts.

Until recently, digital construction technology was mainly used by large general contractors or multinational companies which had the resources to invest in the software and hardware, as well as the ability to recruit and train people to use it. However, this is changing.

Cloud computing and Internet connectivity allows small companies to access the same digital tools as their larger competitors. Cloud-based subscription software means smaller, more specialised companies can keep up-to-date with the latest developments on a regular basis and have all the best features available to them.

Government driving change

Singapore has its own way of doing things and getting things done. A good example of this is the government's blueprint for the sector - the Construction Industry Transformation Map (ITM).

The Construction ITM was developed with the input of all interested parties - companies, unions, academics and public authorities. It is an approach which is hard to replicate in most other countries and is typical of Singapore's collaborative approach to solving problems.

It establishes a vision for a modern and technology-driven construction sector where good design leads to more off-site manufacturing of building components as well as efficient on-site installation and assembly. It makes sustainability an important part of the way buildings are designed, built and used.

While the government is taking the lead in coordinating an industry response, it is laying down a challenge: change or be left behind. As officials have explained, the government is creating the conditions for the entire industry to upgrade, upskill, and offer cutting-edge products and services. But what is required is a transformation of the whole construction sector - the entire process and value chain, from end to end.

The new construction professionals

Singapore has started training the highly-skilled workforce the construction industry will need in the future. The number of people trained in digital construction is set to leap from current levels of around 32,000 to some 80,000 by 2025.

To achieve this goal, a new world-class facility for the teaching of digital construction skills has recently opened in Singapore. The new Integrated Digital Delivery Centre is a collaboration between Singapore's Institute of Technical Education and global-technology leader, Trimble. At this centre, students are learning to use digital tools to design and construct all types of structures. Their skills and knowledge will help many construction companies stay competitive.

An essential tool in the modern construction professional's arsenal is Building Information Modelling (known as BIM in the industry). With BIM technology an accurate and virtual 3D model of a building is constructed digitally by the design team. These computer-generated models contain the precise geometry and data needed to support the construction, fabrication and procurement activities through which the building is realised. This model-based approach increases efficiency and collaboration among all stakeholders involved in the construction project.

Research by Trimble comparing the results of companies before and after they adopt a digital workflow, shows the cost of a building project can be reduced by up to 30 per cent, and the amount of rework required to fix mistakes can be cut by up to 50 per cent.

Generational change

The leadership of the construction industry is quickly moving from one generation to the next. Many contractors are approaching their retirement age, and when they leave the industry they will take 30 years of experience with them.

A younger generation of construction leaders are now stepping up to take their place. Their understanding of technology allows them to be accurate and productive from the start. They understand the power of connectivity where multiple stakeholders work together by sharing information of the construction project in the cloud.

This next generation of construction leaders see how technology overcomes the biggest problem the industry has always faced - getting the different trades and professionals from different disciplines to work better together. Architects, structural and mechanical engineers, contractors and sub-contractors all using a digital workflow that shares information and boosts productivity.

This next generation of construction leaders have the knowledge, the tools and the support to take Singapore's vision for a sustainable and technology-driven construction industry into the region. And in doing so, they will create a better and more liveable built environment for Singapore and its neighbours.

  • The writer is vice-president of Trimble Inc, a leading provider of advanced technology to the construction industry.

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