Family businesses and the digital transformation
How can the potential of digitalisation be better utilised? Why should people be at the centre of digitalisation? What role can usability and a user-oriented approach play in new digital solutions? In an interview with Tenera, Larissa Zeichhardt goes into these questions in more detail and also explains how important open-interface software applications are in everyday work on the construction site and gives an outlook on the construction industry in 2030.
Entrepreneur Larissa Zeichhardt runs the LAT Group together with her sister, Arabelle Laternser. A medium-sized family business with over 130 employees. The electrical installation company equips public transport with safety technology and provides the analogue and digital infrastructure at the track. In this article, she provides an insight into the company's digitalisation projects and describes how her industry can proactively use the opportunities of digitalisation. At LAT itself, the administration works paperless, foremen use digital clipboards and site managers a construction site app.
Digitisation projects - from construction site documentation to process automation
Technical progress in infrastructure construction has traditionally been rather slow. This can be attributed, among other things, to public clients and the small number of large general contractors and network operators, such as Siemens or Deutsche Bahn. Thus, progress in the digitalisation of the construction site is often left to SMEs. Here, however, technological progress is primarily generation-dependent. What does this mean for change?
A generational change can help to advance digitisation projects. This is exactly what LAT has done for itself: "We have achieved a generational change. Since then, change has been part of our DNA. A good basis for successfully implementing digitisation projects." Larissa Zeichhardt also sees the generation change as a kind of initial igniter for digitisation projects. The greatest potential was initially seen in the digitisation of construction site documentation. The project has grown over the last few years and now also includes fleet and tool management. Zeichhardt also sees potential in the areas of process automation and robotics. There are already concrete projects in this area, such as the measurement of tracks: "There are often small deviations from planning documents in reality. So that we can see these differences quickly, we are currently testing whether a robot dog Spot (from Boston Dynamics), for example, can walk around the construction sites and carry out measurements."
Smart City: The networked city is based on data
Artificial intelligence (AI) is also playing an increasing role. Among other things, LAT installs video surveillance systems for public transport that record flows of people and enable passenger counting. In the context of German data protection, these services would be much more complicated without automatic anonymisation through AI. In order to leverage the potential of video data, qualified data analysis plays an important role.
Two overarching themes are crucial for the success of such projects and the associated sustainable added value: interface openness and user-friendliness.
Interfaces as the key to sustainable digitalisation
In all digitisation projects that are already being pursued or planned, interfaces, or Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), are becoming increasingly central. This is where an enormous, as yet largely untapped potential lies dormant in order to exploit the possibilities of digitalisation in a sustainable manner. The goal is to overcome system discontinuities and to generate a data flow that makes double entries superfluous. However, this simple-sounding goal quickly encounters hurdles, which is particularly evident internally at LAT, for example in tender management: "In the tendering process, it is always about identical data: Personnel deployment, vehicle fleet and workload. Ideally, these are entered once by the user and mirrored in all other programmes. Interfaces prevent work from being done twice."
The free flow of data is therefore the key to ensuring smooth transitions. Conversely, a lack of interface openness is also one of the biggest challenges and obstacles to digitalisation for many SMEs. At LAT, a variety of different software solutions are in use, some of which also communicate with each other. However, we see even more potential here, because without open-interface programmes, SMEs, especially in the construction industry, are not at all in a position to look further into the question of how the data can be transferred. When companies buy software or a licence, they want to have the necessary freedom to use the data without restrictions. Hence the plea: more open interfaces are needed. Besides the general added value, these also offer concrete advantages for the employees in the company.
User-related digitisation as a success factor
In digitisation projects in companies, great importance should always be attached to the users themselves, i.e. the employees, as well as their demands and needs. The user-centred design of digital applications offers many opportunities for companies in the construction industry. An important aspect of this can also be the corporate culture and the interaction with the employees themselves. Zeichhardt appreciates the approach of user-centred design: "We are interested in innovations that are needed on the construction site. The focus is on the user. For example, if the user does not have a fixed workplace, it makes little sense to offer software that only works on the desktop.
Improvement loops are also important. For example, the construction site app used at LAT was expanded to include a dictation and translation function after receiving corresponding feedback in order to reduce language barriers.
Another example illustrates the strategy of putting the added value of digital solutions in the foreground and at the same time taking away the employees' fear of using them. In order to create acceptance for digitalisation, any hurdles should be deliberately kept small. In concrete terms, this can mean the use of a PDF reader and the corresponding PDF markup tool on the construction site. Site managers can use these tools at their own request to be able to write something directly in construction plans. "A suggestion came up to use a smartboard so that plans can be viewed at a size beyond the phone. The fact that our senior construction manager, in his early sixties, is our most active smartboard user is surely also due to the added value he recognises in the solution for himself." SMEs in particular can take advantage of user-oriented design in digitalisation: "We are an electrical assembly company and have limited resources for research and development. We don't have a separate department for this like in a classic corporation. But what we do have, and what many larger companies don't use, is the knowledge of every single employee. And we don't need a budget for that at all, just a dialogue with the team." In this process, it is also an advantage if the company is agile and innovative in its approach to digitalisation, which means gathering regular user feedback and users also becoming more courageous in expressing their wishes. Here, too, there is still a lot of untapped potential in the industry. Traditions must be questioned and broken up and intensive, open communication established that favours and drives innovation processes. The user-oriented design of digitalisation and the handling of employees is also central to the issue of a shortage of skilled workers.
Countering the shortage of skilled workers with digitalisation, relieving the burden on existing employees
A fundamental issue with great potential through digitalisation is the shortage of skilled workers in the industry in general and thus also the specific shortage of personnel among industrial employees. In order to counteract this shortage, companies can also relieve the existing industrial employees with digital tools. The possibilities are broad, similar to the range of digitalisation projects. With this range of possibilities, the user should again be clearly in focus: "We introduce digital tools to work more efficiently and thus save time. In this way, our employees can save on travel time, for example. LAT also wants to address the issue of staff shortages by reallocating resources to digital tools in order to free up resources for important work. In many respects, the digitalisation of construction site documentation is a decisive lever for relieving the workload of existing employees. This is linked to the question: How can the documentation work be organised sensibly and sustainably without demanding too much time and energy from the skilled workers? Here, too, there is great potential in the use of new, digital tools in combination with old familiar ones. The interfaces already mentioned are important here, whereby even the smallest adjustments can bring enormous added value. Even small steps in digitalisation can make a big difference on the construction site and not only help to relieve existing employees, but also to attract new skilled workers.
Digitisation must also arrive in the training centres, which becomes clear in the example of related skilled professions: "Sewer rehabilitators have been working with robots for 20 years, when will automation be on the timetable of the civil engineering technician?" A real turnaround is therefore needed here, as today subjects are often still taught that are actually no longer relevant, while the concrete requirements have long since evolved.
Avoiding buzzwords, phrases and technical terms - communicating digitisation in an understandable way
The term 'artificial intelligence' reveals a fundamental dilemma that goes hand in hand with advancing and ever more comprehensive digitalisation: what should and can such terms convey at all? Especially in the construction industry, the target group of digital solutions, and the benefits these solutions bring, should be of overriding importance. "AI is such a big, elusive term. That's why I think it's a mistake for our industry to always just talk about AI without simply describing the benefits behind it. Especially for the benefit of the users, we should get away from the many technical terms that come up with advancing digitalisation. For our users, it doesn't really matter what technology is behind it, as long as the result is right. We like to throw new words into the room that confuse a lot of people. And that is sometimes a hindrance, precisely because we actually want to use the technologies to achieve certain things.
So what is the best way to counter possible uncertainties? The company tries to keep all terms in German and deliberately avoid foreign words and large technical terms. For example, the term 'drone', which has a negative connotation, is quickly renamed a surveying tool that can support construction planning with aerial images. So with all the new words and terms, one should maintain a certain normality and try to communicate with each other at eye level. This is a key approach in the construction industry.
'Connected Construction' as a game changer for digital transformation
Connected Construction' is a burning issue in view of the interface problem. The comparison of open interfaces and a building is suitable here: "In a building, everything is connected. In contrast, in the digital world there is also data that is not connected to each other, or interfaces that manufacturers sometimes like to close." As a result, open interfaces must therefore be created, because without them, smooth processes in the construction industry are not possible. "Whenever we build transport routes, there are transitions. To this day, I cannot understand why developers do not have these natural transitions and how it can be at all that manufacturers are allowed to close certain transitions. For me, Connected Construction therefore also means: back to the source, because in the construction world everything belongs together." In the coming years, one of the central challenges of the construction industry in Germany will therefore be to become more open to interfaces.
The Construction industry in Germany in 2030
The construction industry will face further major challenges in the coming years with the parallel implementation of the energy and transport transition and the expansion of broadband. Particularly with regard to the wishes and objectives of politicians, there is a gap between aspiration and reality. Above all, consideration should be given to what can actually be achieved and implemented by the construction industry in view of the general conditions. The example of broadband expansion clearly shows how great the differences can be between the wishes of politicians and what can actually be implemented: The Gütegemeinschaft Leitungstiefbau assumes that the politically demanded expansion of the broadband network by the end of 2025 will overtax the industry's capacities due to insufficient framework conditions. In this context, a reform of public tenders is also urgently needed in the coming years in order to reduce inhibition thresholds for innovations.
One goal for the future should be to enable all employees in the value chain to share data - Building Information Modelling (BIM) is the central issue here. BIM is already widely used in the construction industry today and it can be assumed that digital construction will pick up even more speed in the future.
By 2030, the construction industry will also have a special focus on personal responsibility and agile working due to the increased entry of Generation Z into working life. This will go hand in hand with digitalisation processes, i.e. away from paper and towards digital solutions, especially in topics such as occupational health and safety. In addition, agile working will be implemented more strongly on the construction site itself. In order to eliminate uncertainties in the future, it is important that changes are communicated in a comprehensible way. Finally, in addition to the changes mentioned, other signs of advancing digitalisation are also discernible. First and foremost, there are the enormous automation processes, which will make the sometimes large discrepancy between automation and strenuous physical work in the construction industry smaller and smaller in the coming decade as a result of digitalisation. Family businesses and SMEs in particular are catching up in this area and are often much more agile and innovative in the processes described than they are given credit for.
Zeichhardt puts it in a nutshell: "At the end of the day, we are always a team in construction, working together is crucial."
Image sources: LAT
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