The Smart Contractor

Construction group ASGC is deploying new technology to build some the UAE's smartest new buildings

Tags: ASGCBuilding information modelingConstructionUnited Arab Emirates
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The Smart Contractor ASGC is using technology to boost its own efficiency, and offer value-added services to clients, says El-Hawary.
By  Mark Sutton Published  March 16, 2019

In the era of digital transformation and smart cities, all organisations are feeling the pressure to deploy new technology to gain competitive advantages and increase efficiency. In the construction sector, which faces tougher margins and operating conditions than most, however, many companies have lagged behind, and only a few companies have really embraced digitisation - even as the region looks to construct ever smarter buildings and city projects.

One of the leaders in the sector that been an early adopter of technology, is ASGC Group. The contractor is responsible for some of the UAE's most smart and sustainable projects, such as the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library, the RTA's Enterprise Command & Control Centre (EC3), and the Sustainability Pavilion for Expo 2020, although the company's investment in technology predates these projects.

Maged El-Hawary, controls director for ASGC, explained that technology innovation, along with safety and quality, are key parts of group's business vision: "We have our strategy up to 2020, and one of the things is to more depend on digitalisation and automation, and being smart in our processes and execution. This is one of the core parts of our strategies."

This strategy has included adoption of new technology such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), the appointment of a CIO, a rarity for construction companies in the region, and strategic partnerships with research institutes and universities around the world.

Most recently ASGC joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Industrial Liaison Program (ILP) to support it in the development of smart cities. The agreement will provide ASGC with greater access to MIT's faculty, labs, and technical expertise, as well as conferences, training, and the potential for collaborative research in new technology arenas.

The aim, El-Hawary said, is to tap into sources of expertise and learn from the construction sector in other countries, and from different vertical sectors.

"We are trying to rethink the construction industry, trying to be as smart as we can," he said. "Usually construction is almost the most outdated industry, with a very low profit margin. We are trying to be more efficient, we are trying to reduce costs, and to do things more smartly, using new technology like IoT, blockchain, and big data.

"To do this, we need to get connected to new research areas, to see what people are doing, and get connected to different industries to understand what they are doing, and then see what we can learn from them and where we can improve."

In technologies like BIM, which creates functional digital models of buildings, ASGC was ahead of the curve in the region on implementation, El-Hawary said, with adoption starting from 2012 to 2013. As the company built its inhouse expertise in BIM solutions it became an integral part of all projects, with the company adding BIM 4D, which creates a model of a project over time, so that progress and development can easily be seen, and is now adding ‘5D', the integrated tracking of costs.

The company has also added augmented reality and virtual reality, and a gaming engine, so that it can offer customers 3D simulations of buildings which the client can use to explore and experiment with features and functions of the project before it begins construction.

In late 2016, ASGC became one of the first companies in the UAE to be certified by Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and the Ministry of Defence for drone operations, and the company now uses a drone fleet to record construction progress of each work site once a week. ASGC then shares the site footage with each client on a dedicated Vimeo channel, combined with the updated BIM data, to give highly accurate weekly reports on the every project in terms of progress against the plan, costs and more.

Drones also provide a logistical support role, by helping in better planning of jobs through monitoring work sites, and other projects include the use of 3D printing for the initial study models made of each project.

ASGC has also adopted RFID tags attached to labourer's safety helmets, which allows them to track thousands of workers across sites to monitor resources, efficiency and safety, and the company is also using RFID for fleet management and equipment tracking.

El-Hawary pointed out that the company is trying to make use of the latest technology to add value to construction, and while it is keen to adopt new solutions, there needs to be a return on investment. As a contractor, the company follows the client's requirements, so it is important to control costs for complex projects.

However, ASCG has been able to shift client expectations and set new standards with some of the technology that it has brought to projects. ASGC introduced the BIM 4D concept to Expo2020, and the Expo organisation was so impressed with the visibility it gave them into its various projects, that it now requests it as standard.

"Two years back, there was no expectation from the client, [for smart construction technology] but even if the client doesn't require it, we are giving it to them as added value," he said. "We have an acknowledgement letter from Expo 2020, they are using our BIM 4D model, and it is mandated for all other contractors working on the Expo."

Alongside of smarter construction processes, ASGC is also seeing more demand for smart buildings, El-Hawary added. Although many developers are still unwilling to invest in smart buildings, particularly in residential construction projects, the company has participated in projects like the new Dubai Arena, Expo 2020, and Dubai International Airport, where ‘smart' has been an integral part of the concept from the early design stages, and the company has the expertise to handle smart technology in such projects, he added.

Another area which is gradually gaining acceptance from the industry is sustainability in construction. ASGC has built a number of projects that include meet high standards of sustainability in the buildings, including the Roads & Transport Authority's E3 command centre, which is LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Gold certified, and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library, which will be the second LEED platinum building in the city.

ASGC is looking to introduce sustainability into its own operations as well. The company was a sponsor for the Solar Decathlon Middle East, which took place in Dubai in November. The competition challenged university teams to create sustainable, solar-powered model houses, and along with providing support to the team from American University of Dubai, ASGC also got some ideas on how it could adopt more sustainable practices, including a new concept for its temporary site offices.

"Usually contractors operate their temporary site offices based on generator power, so our next step is to use solar panels. We have tested this with the AUD and the Solar Decathlon, so the sustainable site office will be the first result out of the Solar Decathlon."

As an internal initiative, ASGC is looking at sustainability, such as reusing materials and reduction of waste, improved maintenance and reduced C02 emissions, because the company believes it will add value to the business, El-Hawary explained.

"We understand the value and importance of sustainability - some companies are using the concept to market themselves, but really we see an added value. When we started innovation initiatives, we found there really is an added value, with more client satisfaction, more knowledge about our business, it added many things to our business. It is the same with sustainability, we want to be very specific, to quantify the added value, so we are going to set internal KPIs for the sustainable site offices, to see what will be the benefit, first to the business itself, then the benefits to the environment and as part of Dubai's initiatives for continuous improvement and development.

Going forward, El-Hawary said he is looking at other digital technologies which will bring new levels of productivity and efficiency for the group.

"I'm looking for three things that are very important to us, IoT, blockchain and big data in construction," El-Hawary said. "I am doing innovation to improve my profit margin - I have to have a return on investment."

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