Speaking with the industry

Creating standards with the digital toolbox - ZÜBLIN

What role does standardisation play in digitalisation in the construction industry? Insights from Simon Jagenow.

Creating standards with the digital toolbox - ZÜBLIN

Simon Jagenow is Head of Digitalisation at Ed. Züblin AG. ZÜBLIN currently employs more than 13,000 people worldwide, around 8,000 of them in Germany. The company is part of STRABAG SE. Jagenow reports directly to the Executive Board and is responsible for defining and implementing the digitalisation strategy. For this, he coordinates the strategic project portfolio. In an interview with Tenera, he provides insights into the digitalisation of the industry, explains the potential of 'Connected Construction', addresses trends and describes an outlook for the construction industry in 2030. 

Digitisation projects: Standardisation as the key to success - whether for the digital toolbox or digital process and supply chains

In addition to concrete digitisation projects themselves, a major challenge for companies in the construction industry is the standardisation of digital processes. Data and software standards can not only help to implement innovative technologies on the ground, but also to effectively counteract the fragmentation of the industry in general. However, this requires a truly uniform, standardised software use or a unified data structure. If this alignment succeeds, companies can in turn uncover unused potential and in the future also apply business models based on standard data.

At ZÜBLIN, for example, larger and more comprehensive digitalisation projects are derived from the overarching theme of standardisation. These include the digital toolbox for new construction projects, with a construction management app for project managers: Depending on the prevailing framework conditions of a construction project, project managers receive suggestions as to which digital tools can be used.

The digitalisation of the process chain around process, production planning and production control, entirely in the sense of lean construction, can also offer companies in the construction industry previously undreamed-of opportunities. The decisive factor here is the consideration of the entire life cycle of a building, from planning, construction and use to rededication and deconstruction. For the digitalisation of the process chain, ZÜBLIN uses, for example, a digital cycle control board that is fed from appointment calendars and makes all relevant data available transparently for each project. In this way, a division manager can find out about the status of a construction project independently of location and on a daily basis, and quickly gets an overview of where the traffic lights are set to red, green or yellow in the project.

With a view to the entire value chain, supply chains should not be ignored in the context of company-wide standardisation. Component standards and digital process and supply chains can create great added value for construction. Digital tracking systems for main building materials are conceivable and already feasible. Such a system could be realised with an app, for example, in which the building materials, for example ready-mixed concrete, can be called up. This app can also be used to communicate directly with the producer and to manage all the data for a corresponding order.

This principle can also be transferred to building components. The entire production process of, for example, prefabricated concrete parts, timber and steel construction elements, wet cells, windows or doors can be digitally mapped and thus provide more transparency. This begins with information on the status of the order and extends to the production itself. In practice, these components should then be able to be tracked on their way to the construction site. As soon as the parts arrive at the construction site, they can be scanned or recorded via QR code or RFID tag. Subsequently, a digital record is also kept of when these parts have been installed and accepted. Basic process standards are important for this, also to take into account the complexity in construction.

These broad and more comprehensively conceived digitisation projects can, at their core, advance the standardisation of companies in the construction industry quite fundamentally. In addition, there are many individual pilot projects and special use cases that have the potential to change the industry. For example, ZÜBLIN has such a pilot project in the area of robotics: with the robot dog from Boston Dynamics, they are currently testing how the construction progress on the building site can be documented with 360-degree photos. Furthermore, artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to drive digitalisation in the industry in many areas.

Artificial intelligence as a labour-saving tool in construction planning

AI can take on many different roles and be relevant for a wide variety of projects. There are use cases, for example, in photo or data pattern recognition, as many photos are generated in construction projects and a large amount of information from cost databases or quotations is evaluated. With the help of AI, for example, previously measured effort values can be fed back into a database and forecasts made about how they may change within a project. Conclusions can then be drawn for the next project in a similar category.

There is also a concrete use case for AI in BIM. For example, ZÜBLIN is increasingly working with external BIM models from other planners. Since a wide variety of data standards prevail for these models, it must be taken into account that a wide variety of attributes can be assigned to a building material. Here, AI can help to analyse external BIM models and link the company's own attributes for reinforced concrete, for example, which are required for evaluation and calculation, with the attributes assigned in the model.

If you look at the digitalisation projects and initiatives mentioned in their entirety, it becomes clear what challenges the construction industry has to face and - as the examples mentioned show - is already facing. In order to be able to use the opportunities of digitalisation sustainably, the innovative strength of a company is also important.

Combining tradition with curiosity - always on the pulse of time

ZÜBLIN demonstrates its innovative strength by controlling the value chain and having an overview of the entire life cycle of buildings. The corporate strategy is based on lean construction as an integral approach to the planning, design and execution of construction projects. According to Jagenow, in order to be able to develop innovative strength as a company, it is important that new ideas and concepts are constantly tested: "It is important that we do not stop trying out new things and also pilot innovative ideas - always against the background of the question: Does this bring us further or not? But it is also essential that these things and ideas are clearly aligned with our corporate strategy and philosophy." The corporate philosophy is becoming increasingly important when it comes to bringing young colleagues along on this path, especially in view of the shortage of skilled workers that is challenging the construction industry. For this, however, companies must provide digital tools with which the colleagues of the next generation can work adequately. In the construction industry, therefore, an important strategic approach is to have one's finger on the pulse of the times in order to inspire the younger generation for one's own philosophy and tradition. For this reason, it is also important to deal intensively with current trends, above all with the topic of sustainability in the construction industry and, linked to this, the further development of BIM.

"The topic of sustainability will simply give BIM another push. We will not be able to improve the sustainability of buildings without a data model and BIM, because only then will the ecological footprint of the current planning status become visible at all. This makes sustainability, also from a financial point of view, increasingly important for the real estate market. This then means that a building that cannot show optimisation in terms of sustainability will fetch a worse price on the market."

As sustainability is also gaining in importance for financial reasons, there is an increased need for action in planning and construction - which reinforces the transformation towards digitalisation. Only through BIM is a transparent evaluation of building projects under aspects of sustainability possible on a broad scale in the first place.

Another trend is seen in the end-to-end networking of the construction industry, says Jagenow: "The construction industry is so fragmented in the execution process, starting with the initial project idea and ending with the demolition of the building. And this fragmentation really needs to be bridged by strong networking." In order to bring about this networking, other project models and types of contracts are needed, as well as new methods and technologies that promote the necessary consistency. Platform solutions and a common data environment can be a decisive lever, also when it comes to stimulating communication along the value chain and ensuring transparency.

Platform solutions and their potential: A common data environment for employees and customers

In principle, common platforms are an important factor in digitisation projects in the construction industry, as the example of the digital toolbox illustrates. However, Jagenow emphasises that there will not be a single solution in the future. This becomes clear when the potential of platform solutions is defined on the basis of two central elements: the user stories and the customer journey. Only by understanding the requirements of both sides and then consistently focusing on the users can the digitisation of the industry succeed in the long term.

Following this principle, the user stories of the employees in the existing projects were analysed in more detail at ZÜBLIN, combined with an assessment of their requirements for digital tools. The next step was to look at the customer journey. It is important to understand how their participation in a project is shaped and what influence the customer journey ultimately has on the user story. 

If one evaluates the interaction of these user groups, one comes to the conclusion that both sides would benefit from a common platform solution: "Figuratively speaking, we have a huge box of digital tools in which each tool only covers a certain subarea or subprocess. This patchwork also makes data exchange extremely difficult." For this reason, a common data environment is necessary. It functions as an environment for software programmes and digital tools that can communicate with each other. Furthermore, the common environment enables uncomplicated data exchange and collaboration on a uniform data basis. The establishment of a common environment can therefore be a first step towards common software standards in the construction industry, which also favours the development of holistic digital tools.

ZÜBLIN is strategically working towards this common data environment, also in order to be able to break away from a status quo that should be all too familiar in the industry: large data silos in different locations on already existing, independent and self-contained platforms for processes such as costing and controlling. The strategy towards a common data environment is driven by the described desire for standardisation. Standardised programming interfaces (APIs) are to be placed at the centre of this, with the consequence that only API-capable programmes will be included in the digital toolbox in the future. Accordingly, programmes used so far that are not API-capable are to be successively replaced.

Given the status quo and the goal of promoting a common data environment with standardised programming interfaces, 'Connected Construction' is an exciting topic for the digitalisation of the industry. What is important here is that there are first companies that are driving such projects forward, so that it becomes comprehensible what added value platforms can offer, especially for the construction industry in general.

The Technical and Human Side of Connected Construction

Jagenow first examines 'Connected Construction' from two different angles: a technical and a human one. From a technical point of view, 'Connected Construction' can be understood as a "single source of truth", which makes it possible to say goodbye to many redundant processes through its transparency. For this, Jagenow also takes up the described status quo of the industry:

"The biggest problem in construction is that there is a lot of information, including redundant information, in different places. And in order to bring this information together from the many different areas, very qualified and experienced employees are needed. Only in this way can a good building be built or a good decision be made. My vision of Connected Construction is that every piece of information should be available at every location and only needs to be entered once.

This vision makes it clear that only a transparent, platform-based way of working can efficiently avoid problems such as the lack of an overview during construction planning or the manual transfer of data.

This technical view is supplemented by an (inter)human level: The goal in terms of a vision of 'Connected Construction' should be to consciously handle construction projects in partnership. The most important thing is to keep the high risks and costs of construction projects as low as possible. In this area of conflict, 'Connected Construction' and the associated digitalisation can enable transparency between the client and the construction company, which benefits both partners, for example in supplementary management. Technological transparency thus offers the opportunity to actively reduce mistrust. For Jagenow, one thing is certain: "With the technological shift towards strong connectivity, we also need a new way of thinking, i.e. a change of mindset: we need to create more transparency and accordingly also develop business models that are increasingly designed for transparency.

On the way to 'Connected Construction', combined with more transparency, it should therefore be about facilitations that are already visible in existing digitalisation projects. This can mean tools that, for example, help to make material and production flows more visible and accessible. Starting with the production of a building material in the factory, through its delivery to the installation on the construction site. This requires digital solutions such as process automation that leads through the entire value chain and controls both the flow of materials and the work activities. This automation is necessary to be able to really network the construction industry sustainably. Here, too, standardisation can be highlighted as the central key to success. But what about the realisation and implementation of 'Connected Construction' and further developments in the construction industry in the coming years?

The Construction Industry in Germany in 2030: Digitalised Construction Process and Generation Change

Source: ZÜBLIN (visualisation of the Digitalisation Strategy 2030 as a hidden object) Copyright: © Ed. Züblin AG / STRABAG SE 2021

Jagenow gives a little outlook: "What does our construction site look like in 2030? There you see the customer, for example, there you see the robotics that are behind it, as well as the iPad that can be used to control the process." It can be deduced from this that digital aids are basically indispensable in the construction industry. Also because more and more complex data is needed for the planning and execution of a building, which was exemplified by the topic of sustainability. Start-ups are playing an increasingly important role in this process, according to Jagenow: "We will reach the limits of what is technically possible in the construction industry relatively quickly because we will make very rapid progress. The construction industry had and still has a lot of catching up to do, but I think we have also already caught up well. It is here that we can PropTechs support the industry in moving forward technologically."

In the future, the construction industry will also be about the client keeping an eye not only on the construction process itself, but on the entire life cycle of a property. According to Jagenow, lean construction should therefore become increasingly important: "Only when we manage to digitalise the entire real estate life cycle can the construction process in Germany as a whole also be digitalised to a greater extent. The goal here should be an end-to-end approach to real estate." The end-to-end approach mentioned here in the sense of lean can be seen as the driver of a fundamental change in the construction and real estate industry.

Due to the retirement of the baby boomers from working life, there will be a generational change at management and project management level in the next few years. This means that a new generation will take up management positions, which will provide new impulses and also have a different approach to digital tools. Jagenow sees an opportunity in the upcoming generational change: "But I also see a difference between Generation Y, i.e. people who are now around 30, and Generation Z. I don't see any difference between the two. Especially people of Generation Z, who are now entering professional life, have experienced digitalisation mainly from the role of consumers. And that's exactly what will take us further forward in the use and acceptance of digital tools." For this development, however, it will be important in the future to have a software environment in which things simply work, without further intervention by the user or even in-depth programming knowledge. This means, above all, saying goodbye to 'tinkering' and complicated workarounds for software problems. It is precisely this transition that Jagenow foresees for the year 2030: "In the future, we will handle our projects almost exclusively with digital tools and thus come very close to a paperless construction site .

Published by

Maximilian Burger


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