Five Ways Construction Companies Can Avoid “Technical Debt”
This article was cowritten by Lucas Marshall and Robert LaCosse of Milwaukee Tool.
Construction companies know the importance of integrating their systems (e.g., 85.1% of owners viewed mobile integrations as a “very important” or “important” priority in the 2021 ConTech Report). Yet, full-system integration remains an industry challenge – a global KPMG study revealed that a measly 16% of executives surveyed reported their organizations have fully integrated systems and tools.
In early 2023, 40% of SMBs in the construction industry stated they’d be looking to upgrade their software in the next 12 months.
When deploying any software system, you run the risk of accruing technical debt – a term that commonly fits into the vernacular of software developers and represents the #1 biggest threats according to 69% of business leaders.
An academic study revealed that 75% of technical debt instances originate from clunky legacy software systems. Many construction companies on legacy software systems may find themselves in a catch-22: Addressing the technical debt of their legacy system or facing downtime to deploy and learn a more cloud-friendly, adaptable solution.
In this article, we define what tech debt might look like at a construction company and offer five ways to avoid it or put solutions toward it.
What Is Technical Debt?
In short, technical debt refers to the dependencies one introduces when deploying new software and hardware solutions.
A dependency may be one system not communicating with another, or perhaps an accumulation of software bugs that make a software interface sluggish and hard to use.
Technical debt, like financial debt that can lead a person to bankruptcy if left to accumulate, poses a significant business risk; growing technical debt, that is, refers to the cascading effect that happens when these dependencies, ignored, exponentially propagate and become insurmountable, involving massive operational costs to fully resolve.
Examples of a Construction Company’s Tech Debt
- Mobile apps not integrating with construction ERPs
- Single-application heritage systems running on outdated hardware
- Time needed to learn new software
- Discovery time needed to perform security risk assessments of new system
Five Ways to Avoid Tech Debt
Now that we’ve established what technical debt may mean to a construction company, here are five ways to avoid tech debt from accumulating:
1. Embrace a Culture of Collaboration over Isolation: Rituals, Governance, and Retrospectives
A retrospective is a classic practice in Agile software development where teams reflect on recently completed work and, through these rituals, the team gets more efficient and collaboration yields greater productivity over time.
Planning poker is a conversational tool that exists online and physically – it’s a great tool for facilitating critical discussion. It centers on the reality that if you want to avoid technical debt – which can emerge from complexities not commonly understood by all stakeholders – you need to implement a process whereby all stakeholders, or more importantly all disciplines, have the ability to voice what they believe or know to be benefits and threats of any implementation.
“Collaboration” Apps and Systems
A joint-Autodesk/FMI study revealed that construction has some work to do in terms of collaboration:
- 60% of general contractors see problems with coordination and communication between project team members and issues with the quality of contract documents as the key contributors to decreased labor productivity.
- 68% of trades point to poor schedule management as the key contributors to decreased labor productivity.
- 9% of construction industry professionals say that the top reason for miscommunication is unresponsiveness to questions/requests.
Construction companies can address these collaboration pitfalls by: Adopting cloud-based productivity apps and encouraging company-wide usage. Conveniently accessible communication apps like Slack can empower back-office workers as well as those in the field to communicate with each other more seamlessly, while powerful project management apps like Procore can help construction managers oversee full-lifecycle projects onsite. We’ve built our tool management app with workflows in mind – allowing, for example, tool managers to text or email team members from their smartphone contacts list without leaving the app. It’s of course important to stress, though, a collaboration platform, no matter how powerful, can’t empower its users unless they actually commit to using it together! Our advice: Pick an app and integrate it with other teams’ apps and systems (see in our next section about integrations) to avoid information silos.
2. Hire a Dedicated Software Engineer, Technologist, or CTO
A construction technologist is an important, emerging role within an organization that oversees a company’s construction technology program—responsible for researching and piloting advanced technology (see in next section).
True, labor shortages in the construction industry are staggering, though the US construction market is expected to continue to grow. Mass layoffs in the tech industry present a unique opportunity to absorb the tech industry’s displaced software engineering talent to help address the industry’s productivity challenges:
- Addressing Technical Debt – In lieu of three months downtime to fully port over one system for another, software engineering expertise can guide a company in taking a portion of a larger software ecosystem offline at a time and replacing it with a part, but there are complexities and hairiness to that, which will require nuanced expertise.
- Integrations – Building connectors between project management and an ERP, connecting specialty design to prefab, BIM and asset management, etc., to limit manual reentry of project information, remove data silos, and better connect the flow of project data between your teams’ various software systems and apps.
- Open APIs – Open APIs allow software providers to empower your company’s technical team; in the event an integration doesn’t exist, technologists have the tools to build a custom solution in the short-term.
3. Embrace Technology
It may sound counterintuitive—to attack technical obstacles by introducing more technology, especially when 42% didn’t have a budget for IT (according to the same ConTech report). But successful pilot programs and onboarding can empower contractors and business owners to deploy technology in a meaningful, outcomes-driven way:
- BIM – Building information modeling, the digital tools of trade that architects, engineers, and contractors use to create unified, collaborative, multi-dimensional representations of built environments and infrastructure can mitigate risk and shorten project timelines by 50%, according to a scientific case study.
- Industrialized Construction is not so much a technology as a complete redefinition of construction processes in favor of “productization” over one-off projects that improves quality, consistency, and value for customers. It takes advantage of multiple approaches, such as:
- Offsite construction – both prefabrication and modular prefabrication – which moves preassembly of certain components to an offsite, manufacturing-style facility, and which has proven to increase project timeliness by 50% while reducing waste by 20%.
- 3D Printing – 3D printing (aka: additive manufacturing) offer rapid design freedom and speed of delivery, delivering a 10-house community in China in a single day, for example. Respondents surveyed about their use of 3D printers reported the following benefits they viewed as most important: Ability to create complex geometrical objects, 69%; Value of quick iteration of products, 52%; Mass customization abilities, 41%.
- Drones – Drones can be used ahead of breaking ground on projects in land surveying just as they can be used to provide real-time project reality capture.
- Robots – Robots can be used to automate procedural tasks to free skilled trades to tend to tasks that require a higher degree of human intelligence; they can also keep workers out of harm’s way by automating dangerous tasks.
- Smart Tools – Smart power tools can deliver installations faster and safer, using advanced technology like machine learning to protect operators against dangerous kickback events. Advanced software/hardware interaction can be used to dial in precision settings for application-specific repeatability, utilization data from events performed on tools in the field can be packaged up in a fully customizable reporting suite to provide proof-of-work documentation to customers, building inspectors, and stakeholders.
- Generative AI – It may be a faux pas in certain circles, but exploring realistic ways in which generative AI may fit into construction workflows (e.g., assisting project managers, inventory managers, construction safety trainers, etc.) is critical as the industry looks to execute on growing backlogs.
4. Lean Construction
Just as agile software seeks to improve quality over time, lean construction is an approach to the business of building things that aims to minimize waste and maximize value for all stakeholders by reducing waste commonly encountered on construction sites such as:
- Excessive material handling
- Design errors
- Conflicts between trades
- Conflicts between other contractors
- Ineffective supply chains
5. Digital Twins and IoT
Digital twin technology seeks to mirror real systems and drive smarter, predictive analytics with real-time sensor data through machine learning and artificial intelligence – and it’s helped reduce rework in manufacturing by 15-20%.
Digital twins aggerate data through related IoT sensors that can be used in construction to keep track of tools and equipment in real-time across various jobsites as well as drive safer, smarter installations.
McKinsey some six years ago predicted the rise of IoT devices to empower companies to monitor and repair equipment in real-time through automated alerts for preventive maintenance, inventory management and ordering, quality assessment (i.e., “smart structures”), energy efficiency, and safety.
Today, many of those predictions have come true; with the launch of Apple’s Vision Pro recently, renewed discussion in the construction wearable space, for example, is worth having to enhance safety training.
The construction industry, strapped for talent (both skilled trades and engineering), is rife with opportunities for technical debt – however, there’s a myriad of tools at a business owner or technologist’s disposal to prevent technical debt from getting out of hand.
- Collaboration and ownership through project retrospectives
- Hiring a Dedicated Software Engineer, Technologist, or CTO – perhaps displaced talent from the technology sector
- Embracing advanced technology
- Embracing lean construction principles
- Supercharging your data analytics via digital twins and IoT
Robert LaCosse is a User Experience strategist with over 10 years of experience improving user experiences for major companies like Intel and Razorfish. At Milwaukee Tool, he is a leader in the UX Research discipline, responsible for ritualizing user research practices for One-Key software products. He also serves as a UX mentor and adjunct professor of computer science at Clark College in Washington state.