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Construction innovation stuck in the slow lane

The Australian construction industry is not innovating fast enough and the fall of Strongbuild is proof, writes Alexia Lidas, observing from the vantage point of leading the Design Futures Council (DFC).

In my work to understand the market position, perception and forecast future trends and issues in the architecture, engineering and construction industries. I spend a lot of time having coffee, listening, sharing and learning. I feel both excited and distressed on behalf of those who I speak to.

Why?

Leadership and innovation comes in all different shapes and sizes but only if you’re willing to look.

As one of the largest sectors in the global economy, how have we become one of the slowest to innovate and one of the most expensive and least productive when it comes to delivering.

Strangely in an industry with a currency of risk management, it seems we have forgotten what true risk is. Business as usual is not risky. Business as usual is the root cause of our sector’s inflated delivery costs, glacial pace and general lack of innovation. True risk is the willingness (especially in an industry like ours) to step outside of the traditional supply chain and try something new.

Just yesterday I was reflecting with DFC Members Fleetwood Australia about my impression of the national state of play in offsite manufacturing (OSM). My exact words were, “this is actually an issue of national importance to the economy. There is no question if offsite manufacturing will grow, it is a matter of when, and whether our local market will be able to provide a leading-edge response.”

Only two hours later I received news that Strongbuild had gone into voluntary administration.

And just like that, sadly my point was made.

It saddens me to think how much money our nation has invested to prop up the dying automotive industry when we have a national housing supply and affordability issue, which the OSM industry could address. What makes this even more frustrating is that the skills of most workers in the automotive industry are transferable to OSM – it doesn’t take long to connect the dots here.

While we have great homegrown firms in OSM the reality is they require a large volume of sales to provide the financial backing needed to become internationally competitive and take their technology to the next level to include the OSM geeks dream – a world with robotics.

The next reality we need to deal with is that our industry works in silos. The benefits of OSM are typically lost in silos where dividends are fully realised within vertically integrated business models that embrace OSM from end to end (design to manufacture to onsite construction).

The world is rapidly changing and so is OSM – Australia is going to fall behind if the industry doesn’t come on board. If we want to develop our OSM capability and see the technology mature, we need to create projects, in fact, whole communities that these firms can service, giving them the volume of work and funding needed to take OSM innovation to the next level.

Players within OSM need to support and learn from one another. To innovate in a rapidly changing world our attitudes around competition need to change. The simple facts are:

A marketplace does not exist if your client’s don’t understand what they are buying – this is because they simply won’t buy it.

Construction innovation stuck in the slow lane

Alexia Lidas

We need multiple players to compete with one another and educate the market now there is more incentive than ever to share the risks and learn collaboratively across our industry.

If something can be done cheaper, safer, more sustainably, with increased quality – it will. Economics always wins and it will only be a matter of time – so the real decision is, does Australia want to be a part of that?

Being the front runner is overrated in an industry with so much to catch up on. Let’s speed up the process, work together, learn from one another and help each other. 

Alexia Lidas is the managing director of DesignIntelligence and the Design Futures Council, a private think tank in the built environment.


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