How PERI is pushing South African construction’s digital agenda
As the world’s largest manufacturer of formwork and scaffolding, PERI is a company defined by a core mission to bring profound expert knowledge in both industry best practice and technology through a strong understanding of local environments and requirements. This mission places PERI as a key contributor to the redefining of the construction space as technology and innovation continues to drive real change.
This unique position is what excites Willem Adriaan Brits, Director of Engineering for PERI in sub-Saharan Africa.
“I've been very passionate about construction my whole life,” he says. “At PERI we are at the forefront of real change and a position where we can make a difference to the research and the development of new ideas. We are looking at innovation and improvements which will enhance construction projects and the constructability of these projects.”
Brits has extensive experience in the construction space, having worked in a number of construction roles over the course of his career. It is experience that he feels provides him with a key insight into what the real stumbling blocks are in the industry, not only in day to day operations but in embracing technology and innovation.
That is essentially his role with PERI across South Africa – to enable contractors in the construction space to construct their projects faster, more efficiently and more safely, and the major piece in this puzzle is technology and digitalisation.
“The key thing for us in improving constructability is to build information and wider access to that information,” he says. “What it boils down to is creating access to people on construction sites and seeing 3D designs with live documentation, live design guides, design manuals etc.
“This will make it more effective, more efficient and easier. That’s what we do, we shoulder customer problems through digital construction solutions and a more modern thinking approach to construction.”
The challenge in changing an industry, one that is historically one of the slower moving sectors in the digital space, is changing a culture. With technology transformations and a shift towards digital innovative solutions, what impact does this have on the people?
Construction by its very nature relies on labour and in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, labour is far cheaper than other countries.
“Unfortunately, cheaper labor results in a lack of or considerably lower skill levels across the sector,” says Brits. “In turn, this means that actually applying digital and innovative solutions comes at a price.
“So, there is a tendency across the industry not to move forward and rely on cheaper solutions attached with cheaper labour, which then means projects take longer and aren’t completed as efficiently. It’s a real stumbling block.”
Brits notes that to break down a culture established over hundreds of years is difficult, but that there is an opportunity to embrace a new, more efficient, safer and innovative industry. It will just take time and communication.
PERI works with what Brits describes as the entire engineering value chain. Looking at the construction sector there are the property owners, infrastructure owners, designers and developers, engineers and the mechanical teams that work on site.
In order to adopt a new way of working and implement new technology enabled solutions across that ecosystem, it requires collaborative communication at every stage of the value chain.
“Through information and management tools it enables everyone to link up more collaboratively,” says Brits. “We can see and help design the buildings and look at the constructability at the very early stages. All of this will directly relate in cost savings, from the initial set up of a programme right through to construction.
“All the clashes and stumbling blocks can be addressed, resulting in a much smoother construction process.”
As with any technology implementation, capability is key. But what can be readily adopted in one construction space in Europe, or the United States, may not be as simple in South Africa or sub-Saharan Africa. This is something that Brits is all too aware of as he feels that, much like the reliance on cheaper labour, there is a reliance to remain using the current, outdated software.
Alas, new technology is being adopted more and more across the continent, and the key for Brits is practice and communication.
“We need to discuss the cost of software and the business case for it more and more,” he says. “Most people are excited about the change to digital space. If we can communicate to them and show them how it will boost their activity and their efficiency, then the industry will improve. It’s a mindset, and mindsets can change.”
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Brits also points to the future of digital requiring more skilled people and so PERI works in skilling and reskilling people to better prepare the industry for this digitally enabled future.
Navigating the journey of adopting and implementing technology across a large-scale sector is a task one cannot complete alone. PERI works with a number of contractors and suppliers across the entire construction value chain and Brits feels that the relationships that PERI forms and fosters with these suppliers is crucial.
“In all the areas – design, construction, technology and engineering – it’s paramount that you are close to the suppliers,” he says.
“If you’re close to the suppliers, they understand better where you want to go and what we want to achieve – they help us make the first move. They are entrenched in the industry and see how best to navigate the obstacles along the way.”
The construction industry in South Africa is changing, for better and for worse. Brits points to how a number of larger players in the sector, ones that have operated for hundreds of years, have had to change their operations in order to survive. In some cases, some have fallen into liquidation and disappeared.
To look at it from a different perspective, this has seen smaller companies and the companies that have survived this change becoming far more agile which is key to embracing the technological and digitally defined future.
For Brits, these movements highlight the opportunity that digital and technology brings to the industry, and that it is only just beginning.
“I really see a big space for applying digital information and having live data, just that information sharing collaboration process. There's a lot of space for that,” he says.
“I think there's a large amount of opportunity. There's a big change and a big shift that’s going to come.”
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