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The Australian Construction Industry has Amongst the Lowest Rates of Investment in Research and Development in our Economy

If ever there was at time to turn this around, this is the moment according to Data 61’s Business Development Manager, Tom Durick who gave last week’s opening keynote address at Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction Industry Roundtable (opens in a new window). Durick presented to a group of industry and academics on the work Data 61 is doing in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Supply Chains, Blockchain and Modern Construction space.

Our opportunity is in this moment of time, but its perishable’ - Tom Durick, Data 61

Australia’s former Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb told the 2013 World Building Congress that public spending on construction R&D in Australia had fallen from 2.2-percent in 1992 to 0.5-percent in 2010. He said, “that by neglecting to conduct our own R&D, we not only reduce the chances we will discover new ideas and develop new innovations before our competitors, we also limit our abilities to accept and use those innovations that are developed elsewhere.” Turning this around was challenged by the fact that 94-percent of Australia’s construction industry is comprised of businesses with 5 or fewer people, and that less than 1-percent of construction businesses in Australia conduct their own R&D.

The university’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction, c4SMC involves a collaboration between industry and academia. The Centre’s focus is on ensuring the next generation of modern constructors is future-ready. To achieve that, the university’s teaching programs and resources must be future-ready. Informing the construction program about the transforming nature of modern construction must occur through high quality research. The Centre’s business strategy to raise over $4.0 million to invest back into the academic program is focused on a collaborative investment by Western Sydney construction related small to medium sized enterprises. For their futures. This is the 94-percent of businesses who currently have no impactive way to invest back into construction R&D.

Through the c4SMC investment since the Centre’s launch in late 2017, funding has been allocated to support 6 new research projects. These projects are essentially greenfield in nature and respond to areas where the industry wants more insight developed for future graduates. Industry has called for the projects being undertaken by the Centre to have potential to benefit the industry within 3 to 5 years. There is urgency in the university responding to the needs of industry, as over 1500 new constructors are expected to graduate there by 2025. And industry needs these insights to develop their own businesses.

‘It’s great to see academia focussing on being ready for the industry of tomorrow. We need the next generation to drive change’ – Daryl Patterson, Lendlease

Lendlease’s head of operational excellence Daryl Patterson gave the second industry presentation addressing the ‘Digital fabrication of Structures – a step towards Industrialised buildings’ (opens in a new window). He explained the differences of systematisation versus standardisation in helping to redefine the modern construction eco-system. Responding to the Centre’s aspiration for Western Sydney to become Australia’s modern construction hub over the next 20 years Tom Durick pointed to the opportunity for a ‘New Construction Industry: with visible and connected supply chains’. He said this could be achieved by;

  • Connecting the physical to the digital
  • Improving the effectiveness and efficiency of information processing
  • Understanding and solving human-related aspects and problems in the supply chain
  • Linking data that is currently disconnected
  • Engaging with the impact of IoT, blockchain and open, self-correcting supply chains
  • A new foundation for transactions

Over 50 industry executives, academics and the first of the c4SMC High Achiever Academic Scholarship recipients spent the day engaging with Centre’s research supervisors and recently appointed PhD candidates who had been selected from a field of 38 high-quality applicants from around the world. The Centre’s Director Professor Srinath Perera led the introduction of the Centre’s research projects to industry investors and key stakeholders.

Professor Perera said, “We want our researcher’s work to be engaged with industry from the outset. We will be running the ‘joining up construction conversation’ Roundtables at least twice each year, where our researchers will report back on the progress of their work as they seek industry collaboration and importantly access to data. It will be the quality and depth of evidence that the Centre’s research captures that will have the most impact for us all.”

There was a strong correlation between the keynote speaker’s insights and the research overviews provided by the Centre’s academic team. The presentations included;

  • The Centre Director Professor Srinath Perera’s introduction of his team’s new research into the potential of Developing a Digitalised Distributed ledger for Construction Supply Chains and the many possible applications to help business,
  • The Director of Construction Management’s academic program, Associate Professor Mary Hardie on the Centre’s new research pilot and Dr Xiao-Hua (Sean) Jin’s supervisory role in the Doctoral project to develop a methodology for analysing construction effectiveness using non-price measures,
  • Dr Sepani Senaratne and Dr Robert Osei-Kyei’s introduction of leading edge research into the evolving nature of construction enterprises and typologies,
  • Dr Yingbin Feng and Dr Payam Zekavart’s supervision of a research project to analyse how off-site and on-site construction’s evolving skill and capability gaps can be addressed to improve smart modern construction project delivery,
  • PhD Candidate Navodana Rodrigo’s research project to develop a methodology for calculating actual embodied carbon through a distributed ledger platform for construction supply chains in collaboration with Landcom.

Professor Perera was delighted with the participation and feedback from industry. “There have been a number of offers to become involved in some of the Centre’s research projects, especially Associate Professor Mary Hardie’s pilot project on construction effectiveness measures” he reported. The Centre was pleased to announce a collaboration with NSW Education School Infrastructure to start this work by analysing 50 completed projects.

The Roundtable was held at the university’s flagship Peter Shergold campus in Parramatta. Industry was treated to a modern learning environment and technologies. The roundtable also used the Word-Cloud polling technology on several occasions during the day to gain immediate feedback from participants to gauge how they were feeling about the research.  The Centre anticipates announcing several exciting new collaborations in the near future.

Recently appointed teaching academic Matt Stevens PhD brings a wealth of international construction experience to the Construction Management program. Stevens has consulted extensively with industry in the US and Australia. He has published widely on the challenges facing the construction industry and the need for the modern construction era to lift productivity and the success of the enterprises who often struggle to make satisfactory returns on the work they perform. Stevens commented that, “the industry engagement approach being taken by the c4SMc initiative was unique and overdue in his experience.”

‘I honestly didn’t realise the construction industry needed so much work’ – student.

The participants agreed there was much more work to do. The construction industry has struggled to establish its importance in a modern economy and not just as the beneficiary of the massive amount of construction and engineering projects that will be needed to deliver the Western Sydney BuiltWorld. The industry in Australia is at a cross-road in many ways, as more traditionally performed construction fabrication moves off-site and is performed smarter, better, faster and more sustainably and cost effectively. There is a realisation that the nature of residual on-site work will require new skills and work packaging.  These transformations will have huge impacts on the governance of the industry, globally.

The immediate challenge is to develop a modern construction narrative that sets out what Durick’s new construction industry will look like (opens in a new window). The industry needs to develop a clearer picture of its future-self and the role future constructors will have in translating smarter construction into tomorrow’s smart buildings and smart cities. Making tomorrow’s-built world, offers as many exciting opportunities as it does responsibilities. A smarter industry will involve the best technologies, new methods of making buildings and smart materials.     It will be digital, industrialised more sustainable and global. Such an industry is likely to look so different by 2030 that today’s wasteful methods of construction will seem unimaginable.

It is the smarter and brighter picture of the modern construction era that now needs to be developed to ensure girls and boys in primary school today can grasp and imagine their potential in it. Australia’s modern construction industry will only thrive if the next generation of constructors get it and want to be part of it. Those who will only be 5 years into their post graduate careers by 2030 are already in year 8 primary today. The Centre for Smart Modern Construction will invest in helping to develop a narrative for Western Sydney school children, their teachers and parents to attract the best modern construction talent.

All of these pieces and parts of construction’s future now need to become joined up to ensure a viable construction eco-system like the one described by Lendlease’s Daryl Patterson to be realised, and Tom Durick’s moment in time captured. Turning around the construction industry’s lack of engagement with new research is now a c4SMC priority.

The Centre’s web site at:
This is the time to invest for the future.

Written by:
David Chandler OAM
Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University
7 September 2018