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Tech takes construction to the front of the queue

Tech-enabled approaches to construction are redefining the industry as we know it. Kevin Wilson, IT GM at Stefanutti Stocks Construction, unpacks what the modern construction industry looks like.
Read time 5min 10sec
Kevin Wilson
Kevin Wilson

In the mid-1950s, US servicemen returned home from the WWll battlefield ready to help their country realise post-war prosperity. As the world entered a period of massive economic expansion, new infrastructure developments put a great deal of pressure on the construction industry to keep up with the demand.

Enter the nail gun.

A revolutionary piece of construction equipment, this pneumatic power tool was inspired by the machine guns soldiers used during WWII and it drastically sped up the process of laying floors. This, in turn, made the construction industry far more efficient. If you consider how the world around us has changed since the 1950s, it seems crazy to believe that this piece of technology is still widely used on construction sites across the globe.

For Kevin Wilson, the GM for Group IT at Stefanutti Stocks Construction, this showcases how little the construction industry has advanced in the last century.

“Here’s the thing – to pour concrete or to lay bricks, you really don’t need anything IT-related. And you certainly don’t need a computer to do either of these things.”

But this doesn’t mean that technology and innovation aren’t important in construction; it simply illustrates that the components and actions required to physically build a structure aren’t all that tech-driven.

To pour concrete or to lay bricks, you really don’t need anything IT-related. And you certainly don’t need a computer to do either of these things.

Unsurprisingly, then, the construction space is pretty much ‘as far behind as you can get’ when it comes to IT and technology, he says. Which is exactly why he, a former IT consultant, decided to join Stefanutti Stocks. “The attraction of the role was that there was so much that could be done. I was tasked with taking us from the back of the queue to the front without affecting our spend.”

Getting this right, notes Wilson, all comes down to using technology smartly and identifying where digital innovations will have the most impact.

The 50/50 rule

When asked what an average day in the life of an IT exec at a construction group looks like, he says it’s `50% maintenance and 50% innovation’, a formula that he swears by. He believes you shouldn’t be spending more than 50% of your time keeping the lights on, and, if you are, your boat is probably sinking. According to this formula, the ideal mix allocates around 25% of time to executing projects that advance the organisation and take it forward and another 25% should be spent studying/learning and doing research around what is coming next.

Evolution over revolution

For Stefanutti’s Kevin Wilson, staying ahead of the technology curve is about evolution, not revolution. A well-balanced tech pipeline is divided into thirds, he says. In the front third, you’ve got the technologies in your lab that will eventually become your core business systems. Your middle third includes the solutions and tools that are currently running your business, and the last third features all the legacy systems that you eventually want to get rid of because they are getting more and more expensive to run and they’re no longer doing what you need them to do.

“You have to keep on pushing stuff in at the front so that you minimise the amount of technical debt you have in the last third of your pipeline,” he notes. In the case of a revolution, you’re overhauling everything, which is costly, drastic and can be quite traumatic for everyone involved. “But this is an evolution, a slow and steady process demanding that you constantly feed new and improved technologies into the system so that you can retire the tired and old.”

“In essence, the projects I’m currently implementing are already old by the time I put them in. If you’re deploying a new mail system today, you already need to be looking at how this system will change in the next three to five years. Successful IT management is all about keeping running on the technology treadmill.”

For example, Wilson and his team were early adopters of cloud, but as the landscape has evolved, and with several big vendors opening up local datacentres, they’re constantly relooking at how their multicloud environment fits together. “Keeping your finger on the pulse of technology demands that you regularly evaluate your different systems in order to assess if you’re still doing things in the best and most efficient fashion.”

If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic showcased why it’s so important to constantly adapt, he continues. At Stefanutti, staff members were already working from home one day a week before lockdown restrictions were implemented, so they had the knowhow and experience to adapt when everyone was forced to work remotely on a more permanent basis. “Honestly, if this had happened three or four years ago, we wouldn’t have survived like this.”

And 4IR?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is set to enhance the relationship between humans and machines, unlock new market opportunities and fuel global economic growth. But rather than allowing the revolution to happen to them, Wilson and his IT team have actively been tinkering around with some of the emerging technologies associated with 4IR. He says they started playing around with 3D printing a few years ago and actually built their own 3D printer. Their experimentations piqued the interest of the company’s mining division and they later worked with this team to create a 3D model that would help them to better manage mine dumps. These 3D models are generated using imagery captured by a drone. “It’s amazing the difference these models have made to everyone’s understanding of the project and the project requirements and now we’re creating new models for them every six months,” he adds.

Similarly, they’re also using virtual reality (VR) as a training tool. Rather than entrusting a learner driver with a R40 million construction vehicle, these drivers can do hundreds of hours of training using a specialised VR simulator. And they’ve even tested out the technology on the presidents of several local countries. “Invariably, when they give the simulator a spin, they drive the truck off the road on their first try. Rather let them do so in a simulator than in the real thing.”

It’s amazing to see where you can take things when you give people the time, and the leeway, to experiment, Wilson says. “That’s why dedicating 25% of the day to learning and research is so important. Show me a techie who doesn’t want to be given the chance to play around with technology. I’ve seen it for myself; if you can give this time to your staff, what they give you back is phenomenal.”

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