BY MATTHEW KIBBY
With a boom in hotel construction, major infrastructure projects underway, and good GDP growth in many countries, the construction sector in sub-Saharan Africa offers several bright prospects. A report from GlobalData forecasts that sub-Saharan Africa will have the fastest growing construction industry in the world over the next five years, with a compound annual growth rate of 6.6%.
However, construction companies in the region also face numerous challenges – from lukewarm economic growth in South Africa and funding challenges in Nigeria, to skills shortages, rising materials and labour costs, and exchange rate volatility across the region.
To keep a competitive edge and grow at a sustainable pace, African construction companies need to use data to fuel better strategic and operational decisions. They should also look at how a host of emerging technologies can boost efficiency and productivity in their businesses.
Let’s consider the potential impact of data on the industry. Construction sites are no longer simply a place for diggers, bricks, steel and concrete. They are also a hotbed for all sorts of data that can be used to drive operations and improve efficiency. For example, capturing field data used to be a tedious and manual process that involved clipboards and filing cabinets.
Now, construction workers can easily gather and share data with key stakeholders, both on-site and back at headquarters using a range of tools from apps, smartphone cameras, drones, and even robots. Information reported and accessed using handheld equipment is a valuable resource to help firms stay competitive and understand how resources are used and how work is done.
Actionable intelligence driving demand for artificial intelligence
As data volumes become larger and the demand for actionable intelligence from these bodies of information grows, the need for adequate capture and processing will also increase. In 2010, 1.2 zetabytes (one trillion gigabytes) of data was collected from smart buildings worldwide. By 2020, that figure is projected to be a massive 37.2 zetabytes.
Processing this volume of data and providing actionable insights is the perfect use case for artificial intelligence (AI) – freeing humans to focus on what matters and enabling new levels of efficiency when it comes to data processing. Linking person with machine will provide the construction industry with previously hidden insights into data that would take humans weeks or months to process and find value in.
For the construction industry, AI presents an opportunity to optimise processes and improve results. For example, AI-enabled processes could be used in the planning and scheduling of construction projects, as it has the potential to assess endless combinations and alternatives based on similar projects, optimising the best path and correcting themselves over time.
Beyond Artificial Intelligence
Beyond AI, there are other emerging technologies disrupting the skillsets needed to work in construction. For example, autonomous vehicles for deliveries and drones for surveillance and map building can bring increased productivity and help drive down costs. 3D printing and modular construction are other great examples, enabling better quality control and faster build times. The reliance on machines also means many repetitive processes can be carried out at speed without any errors. Wastage is reduced and resources can be optimised.
The key to getting the most out of these emerging technologies will be integrating them with existing systems, processes and their human counterparts. Technology is only ever as good as its implementation. We need to see closer coordination between back office, vendors, and the field when it comes to both quantity of communication and time of response to tighten the decision and reaction loops inherent in construction.
Implemented effectively, businesses will benefit from greater transparency and fluidity of information. This will help ensure decisions can be made at the appropriate levels within the organisation, allowing the back office to concentrate on strategic rather than tactical planning.
Writer is vice-president, enterprise, Africa & Middle East at Sage