Solid Foundations

Spiralling construction costs, a lack of industry specific products and traditional attitudes have meant IT has failed to impact the construction sector. But gradually the industry is recognising the cost, time and efficiency savings, and laying the foundations for IT adoption throughout the construction sector.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  May 29, 2001

Page1|~||~||~|Considering the money involved in construction it’s surprising IT hasn’t played a greater role in the industry. As it stands IT adoption in the construction industry has been slow to take off, hindered by the transient, project-based nature of the industry, the absence of industry-specific solutions, and unwilling construction companies, which have been loathe to invest in IT. But slowly the foundations have been laid, the increasing availability of software solutions targeting time and cost efficiency, and improving design accuracy. As construction companies awake to these benefits they are beginning to build their own IT infrastructures and integrate IT solutions into their planning and development.

The construction industry in the Middle East has been hit doubly hard, firstly because of the slow IT uptake within the industry and secondly by the slow IT adoption within the region itself. One of the main obstacles to IT adoption in the regional construction industry has been the cheap cost of labour.

“The reason technology has been slow to take off in the Middle East is because of the low cost factor of employees, so technology has had to come on leaps and bounds to the extent whereby it is competitive [to labour costs],” reveals Paul McIver, Middle East manager of Tekla, a software solutions company for the construction sector.

According to Hassib El Assaad, IT manager at Al-Habtoor Engineering Enterprises (HEE), the main local players in the regional market were well established before the region’s IT boom took off. As such they have perfected their paper-based methodologies, whilst the cost-conscious nature of construction companies combined with the continual upheavals from one site to the next has discouraged the adoption of IT in the region.

“Construction companies live and die by contracts, and that makes them stringent cost-cutters. The IT department is typically a cost centre, not a profit centre, and IT’s long [term] benefits are difficult to justify the initial investment,” explains El-Assaad.

Tackling the mindset within the local construction sector is a major obstacle that has to be overcome to enable widescale IT adoption. Abbas Syed, chairman & CEO of OneBuild, a solution provider of private trading exchanges for the construction sector, agrees that the construction industry has yet to realise the cost benefits of IT implementation. “IT has been the last thing on [construction companies] minds, so you don’t see a huge IT spending anywhere in the construction industry.”

The influx of International construction consultancies and companies is pushing IT adoption in the region, particularly in the UAE. The technically more advanced International companies are driving their local partners to deliver IT solutions, and leveraging on their economies of scale.

Software companies, such as Tekla and Revit, which provide industry-specific software programmes, have utilised their relationships with International companies working in the region.

“One of the advantages we had when we started in the UK is that the construction industry is becoming a global industry, it’s one of the leading examples of globalisation, in that a lot of firms are becoming multi-national,” says Russell Henley, director of sales, Revit, EMEA region.

The presence of predominantly UK and US companies has provided both companies with inroads into the Middle East, and has enabled Revit to build on its early adopter programme aimed at helping companies migrate to the vendor’s parametric modelling software, and identify key features for the local market.

W.S.Atkins were consultants on the Jumeirah Beach project, and they have signed to Revit’s early adopter programme in the UK, and according to Dave Lemont, Revit’s CEO, they are looking to find similar calibre companies in the region.

“We’ll pick three to five forward thinking companies in the market, and let them use the [software] so they understand what it can do, then get their advice as to what has to be done to localise it,” comments Lemont.

||**||Page 2|~||~||~|But while the International companies are recognising the advantages of IT, the local companies are slower to adapt to the idea of change. HEE’s El Assaad reveals how the engineering company broke through the barriers to change, and focused on evolving into both a mechanic and electronic organisation with the least amount of disruption and inefficiency.

The key to the company’s nine-month IT deployment has been the construction of a flexible infrastructure. A wide area network (WAN), connects the company’s main offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as integrating with local area networks (LANs) set up on project sites.

Only now is technology beginning to progress in favour of the construction industry and its pack up and move nature. “Often [construction companies] need to forge entire, almost self-sufficient organisations in less than a month, communicate with them intensely throughout the construction period, and then rapidly dismantle these organisations eight months later,” explains El Assaad.

“This is something existing solutions could not address fully, only now is technology coming into our favour with wireless telecommunications.”

Lack of tools and solutions has been one of the major obstacles to IT adoption, but increasingly companies are developing solutions specific to the construction industry, and addressing the cost and accuracy issues that have dogged the industry and sent project costs through the roof.

Tekla’s Xsteel is a 3-dimensional modelling, detailing and automatic material listing system for designing steel structures, based on Windows 2000/NT. The programme contains libraries featuring steel sections that are produced all over the world, whether it’s Japan, New Zealand, Germany or the UK.

“When you go into the library and select a piece of steel to use, it’s an actual piece, its got flanges in the bed, and when you actually connect a cross section to the steel upright post, the connections are automatic, you click and it cuts the beam off to the correct size, and puts in the required number of bolts or wells,” reveals McIver.

Once the 3D model has been designed, users are able to wander through it, rotate it and make sure the fabrication is correct.

While Revit’s 3D software programme, based on parametric modelling, was developed by two engineers and an architect, ensuring architectural issues were tackled from the outset. Revit’s software incorporates windows, doors, walls and slabs, and other practicalities of construction. Lemont says the vendor has created a solution that combines every component of a building together. Revit also addresses localisation in the software, ensuring the relevant building laws are factored into the software, and including the design intricacies that are favoured by countries.

“The more sensitive architecture, and particularly in Saudi Arabia, the traditional Arabic architecture, the windows they use, the way in which they put a wall together, the way in which they detail a building is all very unique to the area,” comments Henley.

The more traditional approach in Saudi Arabia is also reflected in the construction companies themselves, “it’s about 30% local, 70% International,” says McIver of Tekla’s construction companies in the UAE, “Saudi is probably the other way, 70% local, 30% International.”

||**||Page 3|~||~||~|Both software vendors claim their products make significant enhancements on 2-dimensional linear design products, and enable companies to eliminate time-consuming and costly errors from occurring during construction.

“Xsteel has what we call ‘clash check’, so you can highlight either part of a structure or the whole structure and check it. The programme will then graphically illustrate whether its okay by a green symbol, a yellow symbol saying its questionable or a red symbol, which means you’ve got a real problem,” explains McIver.

Xsteel also warns designers about the logistics in relation to tools, highlighting where difficulties will occur in using spanners, drills, torches or other tools in restricted places spaces.

Time savings are also fundamental to these products, with McIver claiming that Xsteel can cut design time by 80%.

While software vendors begin to tout their products in the region, OneBuild is looking to improve the trading efficiencies between partner construction companies, promising savings on time and accuracy in terms of procurement and distribution for building materials.

OneBuild is currently represented by a five person team in Riyadh handling business development, sales and support. But Syed says the Middle East is beginning to open up to the opportunities provided by IT, and he hopes to sign some partners in both Egypt and the UAE.

“We are in the process of acquiring a few big customers, we don’t have it yet, but I think in the next 30-60 days we’ll have something,” adds Syed.

Internet improvement within the region is also enabling the support for IT solutions within the construction industry. Both Tekla and Revit provide training and solutions via the net.

The compact nature of the models enables designers to send their designs and problems via the Internet for the support teams to provide help and advice to overcome any design problems.

“[If] you have an issue we will open up an Internet session with your problem and solve it in front of you, run Revit over the Internet and then send you back the file,” explains Lemont.

Tekla currently runs its service support through its web site with two engineers based in the UK providing online support, but plans to provide locally-based support with the recruitment of two engineers this month.

Tekla also runs an intranet for its users, enabling them to download the latest upgrades of Xsteel, any bug fixes or modification. Users log in via a password and can thrash out any design queries online in the chat room.

The cost of Xsteel is $21,000, and users pay a 15% maintenance fee per annum, which entitles them to two upgrades, “and all the support and technical help” they need, says McIver.

The Internet is also key to Revit’s training processes, enabling Revit to provide anytime, anywhere training and allowing users to develop at their own pace and specialise in the areas they require. “Your in your office, you type out a URL, and at 1 o’ clock you have your lunch, and get trained in Revit for 45 minutes,” remarks Lemont. “We think this is a more realistic way to train people.”

IT can literally help the construction industry build from the ground up, improving efficiencies from the initial design stages right through to the onsite construction, and networking of individual project sites.

||**||eDesign|~||~||~|In the past there were CAD operators, and there were the designers and rarely did either job description meet, let alone merge. The designer sketched something, handed it to a CAD draughtsman and when the two met up again they had to hash out the details between themselves.

The relationship between CAD operators and designers is typical of the often-disjointed workflow that exists around most construction projects. The dysfunctional workflow commonly leads to inconsistencies with architectural plans resulting in expensive, ad-hoc and onsite correctional work being carried out.

Some sources estimate that as much as 30% of construction costs are avoidable, if only construction projects had been better planned and managed.

However, a one-man architectural firm, based in Jeddah has been experimenting with Revit’s 3D parametric modelling software. “Previously it was difficult to use CAD to support the design creativity, so you ended up with two groups — the designers and the CAD operators — and they never merged,” says Ziad Aazam, architect, eDesign.

Aazam began teaching himself Revit after seeing and then purchasing an early version at a US exhibition. The package’s ease of use enabled the Saudi-consultant to begin creating design concepts within just a couple of hours.

By using Revit’s 3D modelling funcationality, Aazam can instantly revise, any changes in the plans, enabling him to deliver accurate design plans quickly. Previously with 2D design software, ensuring co-ordination between these changes had meant comparing different designs and then making the necessary alterations. However, with Revit when changes are made in one area of the design, the package makes the necessary changes elsewhere.

“The concept of instant revision is very important in architectural and engineering practices. There are always a lot of changes happening when building something. When you change one area, you have to realise that it will affect the other areas of the design — Revit fully integrates this functionality,” says Aazam.

“If you are [altering] things in the plan then [the package] automatically changes the [areas] in the elevation sections or whatever other information schedules exist,” he adds.

Potentially, with integration into a costing database, the revision process will also be able to tell the designer the overall cost implications of possible design changes.

For many early organisations, opting for a relatively new product as their main design tool may have seemed a risky step. But for eDesign it has allowed the design consultancy to deliver concepts to clients quickly and cost effectively.

Also Revit’s regular 3-month product updates, and the vendor’s constant contact with early adopters has helped Aazam to build on his original investment. “[Revit’s support model] is very unique,” he says. “Unlike other CAD vendors, [Revit] doesn’t sell you a box and then see you next year with an upgrade.”

Revit’s strategy to build functionality into the product requires “close contact with its end users… they’re building a system and that requires input from the professionals in the industry… [Revit] takes that feedback and considers it as part of the possible development,” Aazam adds.

||**||Piracy|~||~||~|Software piracy has run rife in the construction industry, fuelled by inflexible software licensing programmes, and companies’ struggles to justify the expense of these programmes.

AutoCAD has been one of the software vendors hardest hit. “Autodesk are one of the companies which suffer the most from illegal copying and distribution in the Middle East,” says Jawad Al-Redha, the director of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), Middle East. “AutoCAD is a means for productivity, it is an essential tool for construction companies and they use it directly to generate income,” adds Al-Redha.

But when faced with the choice between a 3 dirham pirated CD and the complicated licensing programmes of some software vendors, which mean companies are charged for software per seat, the decision seems an easy cost-effective one.

“[Construction companies] find it very hard to spend money on software. They understand that you have to spend money on software because you get something tangible. But with software what’s the big deal, its something you can copy on a diskette,” says Abbas Syed, chairman and chief executive officer of OneBuild.

The BSA is working hard to raise awareness about the importance of legal software, stressing not only the criminal act of pirated software, but also the negative effect it has on attracting investors into the region.

Slowly the message is coming through, and latest figures from the BSA show that the piracy rate for the Middle East is 57% for 2000, down from 63% in 1999.

As the message against piracy spreads throughout the region, software vendors such as Revit and Tekla have stepped up their security efforts, but also attempted to address the cost issues that prove the major turn-off for construction companies.

Revit has taken its licensing programme to the Internet, and effectively renews the software user’s license each month. “Every single [Revit] user has to use the Internet at some point, and what this does is write a unique code to his computer based on a combination of things, his unique profile and some information he puts in. Each month we are technically renewing his license from scratch,” says Russell Henley, Revit’s director of sales, EMEA.

This licensing scheme addresses the cyclical, project-based nature of the construction sector allowing users to register the number of licenses most appropriate to their workload that month, and meaning they don’t have to pay for software that they are not going to need.

Tekla has taken a slightly different approach with its Xsteel software. “We have what we call a security dongal, a security lock which fits on the back of the computer, and its password is protected,” explains Paul McIver, Tekla’s general manager in the region. “The password relates to both the dongal and the computer it’s loaded on…We only issue security codes that go with the dongal, and Finland [where the product was developed] keeps all the security codes.”

Tekla also issues licenses to its established users if they need additional software, to meet the “peaks and troughs” of construction projects. Users have to take a minimum six month rental of the product.

Both Revit and Tekla admit that they can’t claim to be completely immune to the threat of piracy, but hope the security and licensing programmes they have put in place can help reduce piracy.

However, a change in the mindset within the industry is also needed to reinforce the efforts of software vendors, particularly with regard to intellectual property rights. “Engineers should understand that [intellectual rights] very well because their plans and designs are also intellectual property, they should therefore value and respect others’ copyrights,” concludes Al-Redha.||**||

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