The construction industry has been historically slow to embrace emerging technologies, thereby unable to fully tap into new opportunities borne from innovative solutions. And the overarching consensus is that the industry needs to embrace technology to remain relevant. In doing so, the entire construction lifecycle will be transformed, from design and development all the way to the final handover of a completed project.
While Kevin Wilson may joke that his title at Stefanutti Stocks, one of South Africa’s leading construction groups, is “chief coffee drinker,” he’s actually the man spearheading the construction brand’s digital transformation. As the general manager for IT services, he explains that being back of the queue when it comes to innovation presents the industry with an incredible opportunity to transform processes without having to make the mistakes made by their more tech-savvy counterparts.
Here, he speaks about what it takes to run the IT function in a big construction business and how he makes sure that Stefanutti are equipped to address its current and future technical challenges.
CIO Africa: Experts agree that the construction industry has to better embrace technology to remain relevant. What technologies are we talking about?
We had to embrace things like cloud, mobile connectivity and collaboration tools quite quickly to become more efficient on the ground. The way we operate, 80% of our staff are not in the same building at any given time. Because they’re on different sites and across different locations, new platforms and technologies were needed to make managing and looking after all of these people possible. In this scenario, a branch-style infrastructure simply doesn’t work. As such, we were one of the early adopters of Office 365 because nothing else made sense when your teams are operating from Dubai to Cape Town.
Beyond this, I’m keeping an eye on the 3D printing space because I think it’s going to change quite a few of the things we do. I doubt we’ll be 3D printing entire houses or buildings, but I do think we’ll be 3D printing components for buildings and houses. We’re also looking at drones, which are already part of our diet. We’ve just used them to assist with the concrete rehabilitation of the Sentech Tower in Johannesburg. A LiDAR drone was used to create a full 3D model of the building and we then used this data to quote on the repairs that needed to be made.
What does digital transformation look like for Stefanutti Stocks?
We do a daily diary to track progress on site. When I got here, this diary was an A3 book that someone opened on the bonnet of a car and filled in by hand. It’s now a digital form that they complete on a laptop or tablet. I’ve been here for 10 years and from day one, we’ve embarked on a massive project to embrace the latest technologies, from leveraging mobile and cloud to testing work-from-home processes so staff can work from anywhere.
As of recently, we are 100% cloud, but it’s been quite a process to get here. We started out with local data centres in every branch, and then virtualised all our applications so they were mobile, and then moved them into a Teraco data centre. We also moved to the cloud overseas because it was more affordable. Then finally when local data centres opened up, we moved things back. A lot of it is infrastructure-as-a-service but it’s highly optimised. This approach is critical for us because when you’re building a road, people can be working in the middle of nowhere so you have to be connected and highly mobile. This set us up quite nicely during the pandemic because we could roll all this functionality out to the rest of the company. There were a few learning curves; I think our users learned more about IT in the first four months of the pandemic than they learned in the last four years.
As construction becomes more technical, what are the main advantages of embracing digital processes?
Today, there’s no way you can be cost-effective in the construction game without adopting technology going forward. Take an example like building information management (BIM), which totally transforms how you design, construct, and manage buildings. BIM adds two extra dimensions to construction: cost and time. So you can watch the building being built and track how your budget is being spent over the course of the project. This makes planning easier and provides foresight into what lies ahead. Combine this with 360-degree drone imagery and you can track how far the project has progressed without having to go to site. BIM also provides a digital twin of a building, showing you the state of all the systems running inside your facility so you can do prescriptive maintenance instead of preventative maintenance.
Can you describe a particular tech project or initiative you’re working on, delving into what you’re trying to achieve, why you’re doing it and what technology you’re using and why?
We’re essentially a document management business because every construction project is documented to death. We must keep records of all our projects in case there’s a legal issue, and given the lifespan of our projects, this can mean we have to store documents for over 50 years.
Our users want to be able to log into a database, type in a search term and the documents they need should magically appear. But most of these records are still paper-based. We’re quite confident we won’t add much to the mountain of paper because we moved most of our processes to digital, so we’ve embarked on a bold record management and archiving initiative. What makes this complicated, though, is that none of these documents were classified so you have to read each one to classify and store them correctly, which requires a lot of time and physical labour. So we had to look to new technologies to enable this search functionality, and we’re working with Wasabi and DocWise to make this possible.
These vendors provide us with AI that can actually read the documents and then file them accordingly. We also needed a storage partner who enabled us to store all this information without charging us too much if and when we wanted to pull data out. If you’re storing data you’ll hardly ever use, S3 buckets from Amazon work well but if you need to do random searches regularly or retrieve data to gather information for a tender, for example, this gets too expensive. Wasabi gave us a storage engine using elastic search that was faster, cheaper and doesn’t have egress costs.
How do you handle change management with staff on the ground and with business decision-makers in the boardroom?
You have to reengineer ways of working across the company if you want to make a change. And you need executive support. Luckily, most of the people we work with are technical or engineers who work from project to project and who are always keen to optimise processes. But management and head offices tend to have legacy processes that are quite difficult to change. If a process relies on a piece of paper and you take that away, people are lost. This makes it important to explain why you’re doing something so that people understand how the technology can improve what they do.
What takeaways or learnings have you found to be most valuable in this ongoing transformation?
When you work in construction, and you’re building physical things, the physical thing has always been king. And I always keep this in mind when I build something digital because I believe that if I can’t do something with a pen and a piece of paper, I shouldn’t be writing the code because I actually don’t know what process I’m trying to improve or optimise. In construction, we need to build things that are strong, secure and reliable. You can’t have a bridge fall over and then just reboot it.
We need to have a similar approach when building technology that’s resilient. Your idea must be solid in both the digital and physical world to succeed. I also believe that when you work in IT, you can easily get caught up in the technology. But it’s just a means to an end. Sure, it can be a differentiator between success and failure but in order to justify why you’re deploying something, you need to make sure it adds value before you even get started.