How we can bring SMES to the construction technology party

David McNeice asks if BIM and digital technology is for the few larger firms that have the time and money to implement it, but not for the SMEs that account for the majority of employment in construction.

Does size really matter? Well, when it comes to the use of BIM and digital technology in the construction industry, the answer seems to be decidedly so.

Before the pitchforks are taken out and knives sharpened, I am well aware of quite a few SMEs or micro-businesses that have embraced the use of BIM and digital technology over the past few years, and have done this on their own initiative, and not as part of the supply chain working on Level 2/3-compliant projects. 

The old adage that it is easier for a speedboat to change direction than a cruise liner has never been more apt than when it comes to innovation in the construction industry – however, this is not the case across the board. I applaud those companies who have managed to get themselves up to speed with the use and understanding of BIM, with some of my own clients at the forefront of this digital revolution. But these are the minority, and something needs to be done about it.

The Construction News survey (Is the Industry Ready for BIM Level 2?) showed that SMEs were significantly behind in the adoption or preparedness for BIM Level 2 compliance. This can be explained away by most larger contractors having the resources to assist in the raising of skill levels and able to have dedicated BIM departments that can lead the process. 

The findings of the survey do not seem to have changed. This became startlingly obvious during my recent CIOB roadshow on the legal implications of BIM, with the vast majority of SMEs present knowing very little of the implications of BIM, and doing even less about preparing for it.

I suppose my frustration comes from being a millennial. Although I didn’t grow up with technology in my hand, and I still remember my father bringing home his first brick-sized phone, I have definitely been part of the digital revolution that has swept across the world (albeit still struggling with getting my new microwave to work).

There has been a staggering number of technological advances since the first smartphone came on the scene in 2007. Ask anyone in a builder’s hut, designer’s office or director’s ivory tower, and they will be able to produce for you a smartphone that has more technology inside it than the first moon shuttle.

Why then are we so far behind when it comes to the construction industry? Especially when we have the roadmap for implementation, the technology and a government mandate to use BIM.

Last October I was chairing the Digital Procurement Workshop for the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the sheer amount of technology out there in the construction industry is both exciting and terrifying. The digital run through of some of Anglian Water’s projects was brilliant to behold, and the technology in existence that replaces site supervisors with drones that monitor and check plant, materials and foot traffic on site takes us one step closer to George Orwell’s 1984 (perhaps that’s a little overdramatic).

From this workshop, the main divide came from the floor. They were split into two camps: one side asked the question: “What are we doing to bolster the use of BIM and digital technology for the industry and SMEs?” The other side asked: “What is the government doing to drive this digital revolution, and how is it helping SMEs?”

Perhaps it is my millennial instinct taking over, but I fall on the side that it is the government that must do more to help bootstrap SMEs in this new digital age of construction.

It is fantastic to see the advances and how technology is driving construction, however it is disappointing that these advances and access to this technology comes at a price, and thus closes access to many SMEs.

It is the government that has mandated the use of BIM and encourages the use of digital technology.  When the UK government first published its initiative for BIM, smartphones were in their infancy. Look how far they have advanced and the fact everyone has access to this technology, in comparison with the construction industry and BIM. 

I appreciate that profits drive the capital market and incentives for innovation in technology for personal use and it wouldn’t make financial sense to give this technology away for free, but the government never mandated the use of smartphones or claimed billions could be saved with the use of digital technology.  Having said that, it is not too much of a leap to see how this can be directly related to the construction industry.

However, when we look at the use of digital technology in construction it is SMEs that are being left behind. SMEs (employing 25 to 50 full time staff) make up the lion’s share of the construction industry and it is these that are suffering at the hands of the larger contractors. 

So what should the government be doing to help SMEs in the construction industry?  Here is my elevator pitch:

  • Have more outreach programmes; free access and training on digital technology in construction (not just BIM);
  • Fund collaborative events across the industry, and attempt to raise the bar to a minimal level that SMEs should easily get to. This construction community forum should be run by those in the industry (the ICE, RICS, CIOB, working groups), and not be government led. BIM4SME is a great example of how privately this can be done;
  • Require it to be part of publicly tendered work that main contractors must skill share, train and promote the use of BIM with SME subcontractors, and allow them access and retention of the resources for the duration of the project. This can be monitored through KPIs;
  • Increase awareness of the access to technology and improve the bare minimum of what is out there that can be accessed by SMEs, using PAS 1192 as a springboard, not a race to the bottom;
  • Reward SMEs that innovate. Too much of the construction industry (a different soapbox for a different article) is too heavily motivated by negatively incentivising the supply chain and not positively rewarding the good work.

Chloe Smith, Cabinet Office minister, stated at a BIM4SME conference in 2013 that BIM is the catalyst for growth for the SME community and would help them to move into new and bigger markets by unlocking more efficient ways of working – but this is not what BIM has done, the government mandate for BIM has caused another hurdle which SMEs must now strive to overcome. 

I would question how use of BIM Level 2 and the government mandate can be a leveller and not more restrictive, and ask what can be done to ensure BIM and digital technology is for the many, not the few.  Answers on a postcard.

David McNeice is senior associate construction and infrastructure at law firm DWF

Edited June 18, 2018