How tech and robots could help streamline construction

2 Apr 2021

Image: Vicki Reynolds

Vicki Reynolds discusses digital transformation in the construction industry and why workers in the sector should welcome their robot colleagues.

Vicki Reynolds is the chief technology officer at i3PT, an Irish company that provides certification for the construction industry. From her base in the UK, Reynolds heads up technology strategy and implementation for the SaaS and services sides of the business. This includes the company’s CertCentral software, which aims to make it easier to track tasks and progress on building projects.

During her career, she has held roles in information management, building information modelling (BIM) and digital construction across several high-profile projects, delivering digital solutions, implementing new technology, and upskilling individuals and organisations.

She is an active member of the digital construction community as global vice-chair for Women in BIM, a UK BIM Alliance ambassador, co-founder of the Digital Twin Fan Club, a member of the Chartered Institute of Building’s special interest group for digital, and part of the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s built environment panel.

Last December, Reynolds received the Women in Technology Advocate Award at the 2020 Deloitte Technology Fast 50 awards. She has also written and delivered workshops and lectures on digital construction and construction technology for audiences in the UK, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, India and China.

‘Robotics and smart machines are becoming increasingly valuable in construction’

Describe your role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy.

Every day for me is completely different and that’s why I love my job. I lead the technology and software development strategies for i3PT and CertCentral, and as we are an organisation that drives change and improvement throughout the built environment, a lot of my role involves a balance of pushing digital advancement without alienating a workforce that’s notoriously slow to adopt new technology.

We are developing and maintaining a platform that is built for tomorrow, whilst staying sympathetic to the capabilities of our users today.

I also do a huge amount of industry engagement, working with groups and initiatives to establish the best ways to further digitalise our workforce, our processes, and our buildings.

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

We are building more and more intelligence into CertCentral to validate information upon upload, learn from it, and then provide the right feedback at the right time for our users to make better decisions.

We collect masses of information relating to quality, defects and issues across hundreds of different types of construction projects, and so our next focus is to incorporate predictive analytics into our system. This type of intelligence could warn managers and operatives in advance about common issues and risks related to the type of asset they’re working on.

It could also help them manage time and cost more accurately based on findings from previous similar projects. We’re only just scratching the surface of the opportunities here, so it will no doubt be an exciting next few years of development for us.

How big is your team?

There are 72 employees at i3PT, with a SaaS team of 14. We outsource our general IT management, but the rest is handled in-house. The software development team is made up of web, app, API, testing, and UX/UI units, and we are very lucky to have such a talented workforce.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

Digital transformation is often blocked by culture and outdated processes, rather than access to the right technology and tools. The built environment tends to be held back by restrictive contract types that don’t support collaborative working, and the outdated mindset that you can sell risk down a supply chain.

We try to counter this by engaging directly with clients and building owners, instead of targeting builders and contractors like many of our competitors. We invest a lot of time into helping asset owners appreciate the power of their own data, and to be more mindful about how it is shared and accessed throughout a project lifecycle.

By encouraging these stakeholders to think about their data needs at the beginning of a project, we can then help them to specify those requirements to their supply chain. As change cannot only come from the top down, we also put a huge amount of effort in to making our app intuitive, enjoyable to use, and genuinely time saving for the teams on site.

Luckily for me, our in-house services team use CertCentral every day, which means I’m continuously receiving honest feedback. I also hold regular ideas workshops with our services team, so that they are part of the design process.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

Robotics and smart machines are becoming increasingly valuable in construction. With such large plant and equipment around, and so many repetitive manual tasks, the risk of injury on site can be extremely high.

We’re now seeing a huge increase in the number of robots taking over manual labour, and even exoskeletons and smart helmets that are built specifically to protect the health and safety of our staff. Robots can also carry out tasks during more unsociable hours, while not being susceptible to fatigue or lapses in concentration.

There’s a nervousness that these machines may be taking jobs away from humans, but with such a massive skills shortage in construction at the moment that’s really not something to be concerned about. The role of the human being is changing, not being taken away.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

Often the biggest weakness in data security is human error. With phishing attempts becoming more sophisticated, it’s imperative that people understand the importance and value of data, and the implications of a breach.

Sometimes it’s not realistic to have the highest infosec restrictions in place, especially if you’re a start-up or a smaller organisation, and so it’s critical that staff are trained appropriately – you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.