Compared to some engineering projects, large-scale steel construction looks unsophisticated and straightforward. Although the sheer size can be impressive, for example, the massive structures built to carry oil production platforms, to most people, they appear to be nothing more than pieces of steel welded together. Nothing could be further from the truth.
How Do People Do Construction Materials Quality Control Without Digitalisation?
The truth is that large steel structures are not simple; they are complex pieces of engineering built to exact specifications. Furthermore, they are made using specific certified materials by a highly skilled and regulated or certified workforce.
Given this complexity and the need for ensuring and proving that the correct steel has been used and the welds certified as fit for purpose, it makes sense that technology is at the heart of the steel construction process. But it often isn't.
Although steel construction software solutions exist, it's still typical for complex and large scale steel constructions to be built using paper or spreadsheet-based quality control and assurance methods. But is that a problem? Well, yes, if you want to operate profitably.
The truth is that although a grey-haired person with a well-worn face, donning a hard hat and carrying a clipboard might, with good reason, instil confidence, it's not how forward-thinking steel construction specialists are managing projects in the 21st century.
Organisations still using the labour intensive and laborious methods of old, including duplication of effort and the multiple opportunities for information to be incorrectly recorded or missed, are making an already challenging task both more complicated and less efficient.
This inefficiency manifests itself as, at best, a reduced margin, and in the worst-case scenario, it will turn a project with tight margins into a loss-maker. In short, this stuff matters.
In other words, traditional methods for managing the construction of large-scale steel structures are wasteful and make profitability challenging to achieve in an increasingly competitive world. So what's the answer?
21st Century Steel Construction
The digitalisation of traditional structural steel construction projects helps overcome all of the problems outlined above by tightly controlling the use of all the materials.
Digitalisation facilitates the efficient use of materials by recording every piece of cut steel, including offcuts. This recording of both the utilised steel and the remnants creates an obvious cost benefit over the common practice of discarding them.
Having a reliable and accessible database of steel leftover from a previous project brings an obvious financial benefit to future projects.
Organisations can repurpose excess material because its provenance and certifications are all known. By digitalising the incoming steel plate, pipes, and sections and following it through the cutting process, nothing gets wasted. But is that significant?
A database of unused steel fully supported by the required certifications creates a catalogue of valuable stock that might previously have been regarded as scrap.
By tightly managing and controlling every piece of steel used and every offcut that's unused, steel construction companies can save money and increase profits. In short, waste is minimised. But that's not all.
If a company runs multiple steel construction projects, having a reliable database of readily available materials on-site is very useful and cost-effective. After all, this is steel already purchased; why would any right-thinking person want to waste it.
In short, the digitalisation of the steel construction process makes business sense. It ensures all aspects of the work, including inspection, weld certifications and spare materials inventory, are delivered efficiently.
So What Does This Process Look Like?
The digitalisation process starts with the CAD model of the structure. This information is used to create the bill of materials or BOM, which is matched to either the incoming steel stock or from available on-site stock - assuming you have an accessible database of on-site stock.
Every stage of the construction process adds to the digitalised information about the project.
The drawings specify the required steel. The BOM specifies the quantity of steel. The inspection process provides the assurance that the right steel was used for the right component. The weld records show who executed them and that the person held the required certifications.
By digitalising the steel construction process, an accurate digital twin of the physical structure is created and can be accessed easily by anyone from anywhere. Digitalising the steel construction process provides all of the required traceability and assurances required, and it does this in a way that saves time and resources.
Using a digitalised approach, a person could physically touch a piece of steel and then, from a tablet or other mobile device, trace it back to its origins and the drawing that specified it.
They would have access to the materials certification, the weld certifications, information about everyone who 'touched' the material and where the excess materials were used.
But Why Does This Matter?
Having a database that holds all information about a construction process is only helpful if it adds value to the organisation. This is where the digitalisation process starts to pay for itself, and here's one example.
Most structural steel projects involve many welds, and failed welds are expensive to remedy. Therefore, the ability to interrogate weld data across either one project or multiple projects has the potential to uncover trends.
For example, if the data shows that a specific welder or team of welders have, across several projects, had an above-average fail rate, this can be addressed. It removes any guesswork or a time-consuming review of paper records. The information is only a few keystrokes away.
Another example is the ability to quickly validate a piece of construction against the standards to which it was built. These standards invariably have a stringent requirement for record-keeping and quality assurance processes. In short, if you are asked to show that a piece of work has been carried out to the required standard, the standard you claim to work to, a digitalised system makes that easy.
A digitalised system forces people to follow a process, raises a flag if the process is not being followed and bakes compliance and efficiency into how a company operates. Digitalisation brings order to chaos. But is it all good news?
Some Of The Roadblocks To Digital Adoption?
So far, we've suggested that digitalising the steel construction process makes perfect business sense, and it does. Still, it requires change, and managing change can be challenging in an industry populated by people who have "always done it this way".
Digitalising steel construction requires a mindset shift. Steel construction is an industry where highly skilled people can be reluctant to adopt the necessary discipline of recording all activities into a computer system. This is potentially because of siloing, the idea that a person is there to do one specific job with little or no appreciation of how they fit into the overall project requirements.
Managing change and taking a workforce with you when adopting digital technologies, along with the transparency and nowhere to hide audit trails, is challenging.
It's also possible that digitalisation is seen only in terms of implementation costs instead of the efficiencies and longer-term savings that directly improve profits. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons decision-makers and managers have resisted digital adoption. It's as if the current way of doing things isn't quite broken enough to force through a radically different, and in this case better, way of doing things.
Perhaps this is the fault of the software vendors, the companies like ourselves who have yet to tell the right persuasive stories that illustrate how creating, what is effectively a business intelligence system, can improve profitability and significantly increase a business's competitive edge.
Digitalising large scale steelwork fabrication projects reduces waste, provides valuable business insights, ensures compliance and increases profit.
In our experience, when companies make the move, perhaps abandoning a way of working that's served them well for decades, it breathes new life into their organisation. Furthermore, having recognised and proven digital systems for delivering complex steel construction projects makes organisations a more attractive proposition, a safer pair of hands, which in an increasingly competitive world presents a significant advantage.