Can digital engineering speed up Australia's economic recovery?

3 min read

Fast-tracked infrastructure projects are up front and centre in the Australian government’s plans to create jobs and reboot the economy. But in an industry already facing skills shortages, who will deliver the programmes?

Mace’s operations director, Sean McKeag, argues that digital transformation in construction will be key for putting Australia on the path to economic recovery.

As governments around the world continue to mitigate against the financial impact of coronavirus, infrastructure investment is widely hailed as an effective stimulus measure. In June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced plans to fast track 15 critical infrastructure projects, including an inland rail scheme from Brisbane to Melbourne, as part of a strategy to help the country recover from Covid-19 and the devastating bushfires from earlier in the year. In addition to the Brisbane to Melbourne rail link, plans for a subsea electricity interconnector between Victoria and Tasmania are also being expedited. The projects will require an investment of AU$72 billion in public and private sector funding and create approximately 66,000 jobs.

While this type of investment is encouraging, there is not enough labour in Australia to deliver these projects successfully. Master Builders Australia predicted that the government must deliver 300,000 skilled construction workers in the next five years to meet demand. In other words, once the budget for these projects has been approved, who will do the job?

The challenge of construction demand outweighing talent supply clearly predates the Covid-19 crisis, but the issue has been exacerbated by lockdown measures and restrictions on movement. Border closures come at a steep price for a country like Australia, which has enjoyed extraordinary economic growth thanks to temporary skilled workers visas. Faced with the lack of an incoming workforce, the need for new ways to improve productivity is greater than it’s been in decades.

It’s set against this backdrop that digital transformation can play a starring role. With the government focused on pumping in funds in infrastructure to stimulate the economy, equal focus should be placed on investment in innovation to make sure that these projects can be seen through to delivery. The government must invest in projects where digital technology is part of the solution, and the construction industry must do its part by adopting emerging technologies at a faster rate.

The idea that digital disruption is changing the way we create, deliver and manage the built environment is hardly unconventional. There’s been steady improvement in technology in recent years, and solutions like digital engineering, project management and information systems, data analytics and drones are being widely used at sites across the country.

Introducing digital engineering at the earliest stages of a project brings great benefits. It allows the project team specialists to work together, share valuable data and to make changes to supply chains and procurement processes, benefitting overall programmes. 

In light of the strong pipeline of work and crucial resourcing dilemma, there’s an urgency for the construction industry to step up and embrace other key technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning and 3D printing. It’s time to put theory into practice. We have seen robotics used with great success to drive productivity on healthcare projects and there is not any reason why this could not be applied at scale to deliver the infrastructure programmes that Australia so desperately needs.

While a large part of the world has been restricted in movement, innovation has continued to advance, unimpeded by immigration bans and lockdowns. When delivered effectively, digital solutions drive productivity and enable best practice to be shared by teams seamlessly across the globe, whether borders are open or closed. Perhaps most importantly, digital transformation on a broad scale helps bring about positive change and influence attitudes to become more open-minded.

In today’s climate, we will face significant challenges in delivering our pipeline of infrastructure and construction projects over the next few years, unless we turn to technology to help bridge the gap. Given that we don’t have the capacity to meet the current demand, economic growth can only happen if we use the appropriate tools to enable efficiencies. There is no alternative. It’s imperative that the government and our industry urgently invest in the next generation of digital construction delivery and skills.

How the federal and individual state budgets will transpire into actual construction projects, and where the funding will come from, should be announced over the next couple of months. With the government’s pledge for investment juxtaposed with the reality of the skills shortage, digitalisation emerges as the only path to successful project delivery, and, in turn, economic recovery.

It’s clear that our industry must remain focused on what it can do to bring these ‘shovel ready’ infrastructure projects to fruition. The simple truth is, if we don’t innovate, we can’t deliver.

This article was originally published in Inside Construction Australia.