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Australia’s construction industry is dropping the ball on R&D investment

The Australian construction industry has among 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 the opening keynote address at Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction’s (c4SMC) recent industry roundtable.

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 it’s perishable,” he said.

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 per cent in 1992 to 0.5 per cent in 2010.

He said, “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 will be challenging. Around 94 per cent of Australia’s construction industry comprises businesses with five or fewer people and less than one per cent of construction businesses in Australia conduct their own R&D.

Western Sydney University’s c4SMC is doing its bit. The Centre is a collaboration between industry and academia, focused on ensuring the next generation of modern constructors is future-ready, through high-quality research. Its business strategy is to raise over $4 million to invest into the academic program that is targeted to reach that 94 per cent of businesses.

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

At a roundtable held at the university’s flagship Peter Shergold campus in Parramatta, participants agreed there was much work to do.

The Centre’s director, Professor Srinath Perera, said, “We want our researcher’s work to be engaged with industry from the outset.”

He said there had been offers to become involved in some of the centre’s research projects, especially associate professor Mary Hardie’s pilot project on construction effectiveness measures.

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.

The industry in Australia is at a crossroads 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.

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 be five years into their postgraduate careers by 2030 are already in Year 8 of high school today.

All of these pieces and parts of construction’s future now need to become joined up to ensure a viable construction ecosystem, as speakers flagged. Turning around the construction industry’s lack of engagement with new research is now a priority.

Key presentations on the day included:

  • 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

Edited highlights of the roundtable, speaker presentations and videos will be added to the Centre’s website.

Adjunct professor David Chandler is construction practitioner and industry engagement lead at Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction (c4SMC).

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