For construction businesses grappling with shrinking profit margins, unpredictable economy and uncertain times, it is time to look for strong program management solutions that can help them create a stronger baseline consistent across the teams and processes. It is also high time for the Indian construction industry to upscale its labour, equip them with skills and adopt tech awareness and implementation initiatives, says Prasoon Shrivastava, Founder & CEO of Zepth.
In an exclusive interview with Sanjeev Sinha, he shares his views on the core challenges being faced by the commercial construction industry in India in times of the pandemic, and how the use of technology can help the industry bounce back. Excerpts:
What do you think are the core challenges being faced by the commercial construction industry in India?
With the advent of the COVID vaccine, most businesses are looking at great growth prospects that can reach or, in some cases, surpass the pre-Covid levels, but on the other side of the coin, industries, including construction, are also under tremendous pressure to efficiently contribute towards national development. The Indian construction industry is one of the largest contributors to the economy of the nation, employing about 51 million people while contributing ~9% to the country’s GDP.
However, even with the sheer scale of the sector, it is confronted with innumerable issues. The highly-fragmented landscape often suffers from time and cost overruns, inefficient project management, lack of skilled labour, supply chain bottlenecks, poor planning, slow tech adoption and flawed management and collaboration, which leads to pilferage of scale. As per McKinsey, “The global labour-productivity growth in construction has averaged only 1% annually over the past two decades as against 2.8% and 3.6% per year growth of the world economy and manufacturing respectively.”
Even though the scale and complexities of the projects in the country have substantially evolved over the years, the solutions to effectively manage them have largely remained stagnant. On top of it, the lowest price competitive tendering also results in low-profit margins, unrealistic timelines and poor handling of opportunities and threats.
What are the trends you see in other countries that India must learn from to ensure faster quality delivery and curtail losses to the industry?
The more developed regions across the world with state-of-the-art infrastructure have one thing common across their construction industries, which is a unified or defragmented approach in the projects. The Indian construction landscape is primarily dominated by a lack of proper planning and vision, leading to frequent delays and rework. To top it, loose contracts and shortage of skilled workforce are just as common, while countries like the US and Japan rely on lean construction practices, the Indian industry lags. Furthermore, the track record of the Indian construction landscape in identification and mitigation of risks has not been too great either, resulting in failure of delivering projects as committed. The poor risk assessment and management, coupled with loose contracts prevalent in the industry, oftentimes can and does put the entire project in jeopardy.
The resistance to technology within construction also hasn’t fared well for the industry, especially the private sector. While the government has been pushing and actively adopting the latest technologies to bring projects to fruition, the private sector has been relatively slow to get on the bandwagon as opposed to the western countries, where tech adoption is essentially spearheaded by the private players. Going forward, the Indian construction ecosystem can certainly take a page or two out of their western counterparts’ books and move towards stronger documentation and collaboration across all levels and stages of the project to ensure they are able to capture as many data points in real-time as possible. The pool of traceable data will not only ease things up for the current projects but will also help create powerful case studies for the projects of the future.
Search engines have made yellow pages redundant, and printed maps are now a souvenir. It’ll only be a matter of time till the latest technologies and robotics become a common sight on sites, and it is imperative for Indian construction businesses to react now and transform their operations into a piece of efficient and well-oiled machinery.
How do you think the use of technology will help the industry bounce back?
Considering the disruption that the contagion globally has caused, time and cost are of the essence to each and every business. The construction industry, however, is dogged by collaboration and fragmentation issues, where team collaboration and project processes take place in silos. The result? The construction industry currently spends $280 billion annually on reworks caused by poor project data and communication, while 98% mega projects globally are either delayed or go over-budget.
Robust construction project management technologies that work in a common data environment can help construction businesses integrate their project teams, data and all the progress on a central collaborative platform while digitizing and streamlining the entire project life cycle. Robotic interventions like drone and autonomous site data collection robots can also help with enhanced efficiency and safety, where they can capture data from hazardous places or for the entire site on a daily basis, which automatically gets documented on digital databases reducing the need to manually capture, upload and analyse the data.
These technologies, while enhancing productivity, can also help project teams plug the leakages while enabling them to navigate the new normal better, which is being spearheaded by digitization and sustainable practices.
What kind of technology can brands deploy to ensure efficiency in projects?
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” – Henry Ford
The biggest challenge in any construction project is visibility and transparency between the site and the office. Back and forth files, emails and data between the site and the office is one of the key challenges in any construction project. Technologies like cloud project management platforms with high-performance servers can substantially alter the landscape with enhanced efficiency and productivity.
Construction technologies of the day help manage every aspect of the construction project lifecycle, right from teams and data to pre-construction and commissioning. There are tools that can help project teams streamline each leg of the process while enhancing productivity.
With robotics and artificial intelligence, businesses can collect data and churn it to generate powerful insights that can help predict future project outcomes.
Sophisticated robotics can help automate repetitive tasks like bricklaying, prefabrication, autonomous data collection, site surveying, and mapping can be easily handled while robots and drones equipped with high-definition cameras and LiDAR can scan project sites each day with a very high degree of accuracy. With the help of machine learning and deep-learning algorithms, the captured data of as-built can be compared against as-planned in real-time to identify issues and discrepancies, enabling faster decision-making.
Powerful cloud-based construction project management software can also broadcast the latest and relevant information, progress, changes and decisions across the team pyramid to ensure that everyone can work with the latest information, facilitating better communication and collaboration. While at it, the implementation of 5D BIM can also help teams link their 3D models with the dimensions of cost and schedule, enabling teams to view how each change, accomplishment and delay impacts the entire project. The availability of the right information at the right time and, of course, to the relevant person can at all times give visibility into each critical aspect of the project that can have any potential impact on the project delivery.
What will be your advice for developers, especially the ones that are extremely labour-intensive? How can they manage people better?
The pandemic was a wake-up call for a lot of aspects of the world and look towards sustainability, whether it comes to the environment or businesses. And from time immemorial, whenever our biggest natural resource, i.e., human-kind, has been challenged, technology has paved the way for humanity to thrive and not just survive. From connecting families in dire times to the development of a vaccine at a record-speed, technology has been the enabler.
Even now, for construction businesses grappling with shrinking profit margins, unpredictable economy and uncertain times, it is time to look for strong program management solutions that can help them create a stronger baseline consistent across the teams and processes. Digitized and streamlined processes and data, traceable on a day-to-day basis, can ensure stability even during rough times. The non-essential and repetitive tasks can be effectively handled with robotics, bricklaying machines, autonomous inspections with drones and robots, offsite manufacturing, and 3D printed parts and equipment can ensure that the workforce can focus on essential and critical roles. These technologies can take up the tasks with relative ease, help deliver on set quality parameters while freeing up the most important resource of the workforce to take up essential tasks like analysing the data, progress, monitoring and planning. While at it, it is also really high time for the Indian construction industry to upscale its labour, equip them with skills and adopt tech awareness and implementation initiatives.
A digitised ecosystem of robotics, processes and workflows can help plug the loopholes in the projects while enabling enhanced transparency.
Tell us the role of Zepth in supporting the construction industry growth.
Construction projects of the day have far evolved in terms of their scale and complexities and are dominated by a host of variables like the economy, changing material costs, labour availability and environmental factors, among others. Zepth helps project teams establish a stable baseline program that can be monitored and updated in real-time from the field, office or any other remote location.
It empowers project teams with robust tools and project risk management initiatives that allow them to mitigate the impact and likelihood of the identified risks. Early identification of risks also has a butterfly effect throughout the project, which also helps in the effective financial management of the project. Our third party integrations ensure that the system is able to adapt to the prevalent project processes while enabling the varied site data with respect to cost, schedule and quality to culminate in a common data environment.
Zepth’s financial management tools help through the budget management and its evolution over the lifecycle of the project with change orders, time extensions, variations, payment certifications, revisions and transfers. The tool helps track the entire dollar lifecycle throughout the project and instils transparency and alerts for all the necessary metrics.
One important aspect of Zepth is also its document management that literally keeps the entire project team on the same page with a powerful suite of submittals, RFIs and other tools. Zepth essentially is an intelligent construction project management platform that enables project teams to manage their entire project lifecycle, from inception to completion.
One of the biggest challenges to tech adoption in the industry is the complexity of the tools available, which is why Zepth has been built with intuitive UI/UX to ensure quick adoption across the team pyramid. Integrated with industry best practices, the tool also has functionalities like multi-level approvals and role-based access to ensure that each member of the team can easily work with the relevant data. Layers of intelligence across the chatbot, forecasting, powerful analytics and automated reporting system ensure faster decision-making driven by real project insights.
What are your plans for Zepth in India?
In India, we intend to integrate efficient construction technologies across all medium to large scale infrastructure and real estate projects. Through various deployments across government, public sector and private projects, we want to build the trust of teams in technology, all the while making it accessible.