Disruptive innovation in business is not new. Since time immemorial, industries have been shaped – for good or ill – by the emergence of new technologies, innovations and ways of working.
What is new is how fast, and how frequently, such disruption is now occurring. Technological advancement is accelerating at a blistering pace, with breakthroughs in white-hot areas of innovation such as big data, robotics and artificial intelligence happening on a seemingly daily basis.
Geotechnics businesses could be forgiven for feeling somewhat sheltered from this technological maelstrom. After all, currently an algorithm may struggle to deal with the complexity of variable ground conditions. But for how long?
Our sector is ripe for disruption. It may not be immediate and it may not be quite as seismic as we’ve seen with Uber or AirBnB, for example, but it’s coming – and probably sooner than you think. The geotechnics businesses that survive and thrive in this era of disruption will be the ones that embrace the possibilities it offers, rather than just sitting there waiting for change to happen.
We’re a lot closer than many people think to seeing machines transforming geotechnics at a day-to-day level. Drilling rigs are becoming increasingly automated or semi-automated as it is, and with automated controls comes data from the equipment. The next step is using this data to change the way we manage and operate plant on site.
This is happening in other industries, for example in agriculture. The technology in tractors now is truly amazing and providing benefits in productivity and reduced wastage in seed and fertilizer quantities. It won’t be long before we see similar advances in our industry.
Much will depend on how quickly we can get to grips with big data. Sectors have already been transformed by the ability to generate, gather and interpret large volumes of data. The finance sector, for example, has seen traditionalist, monolithic corporations shaken to the core by the lightning-quick emergence of innovation and data-led Fintech challengers.
The construction sector, and geotechnics in particular, has been historically poor when it comes to data. We are not great at gathering it, bad at interpreting it, and even worse at sharing it. If this doesn’t change, we will quickly fall behind.
At Bachy Soletanche, we are investing heavily in capturing data from our everyday activities. Part of this is about getting as much data as possible out of our plant, from using telematics to optimise fuel consumption to analysing outputs from our drilling rigs. But it’s also about laying the groundwork for what’s coming and yield the greatest possible efficiencies from BIM and other collaborative processes.
Bringing our industry up to speed on this front will require commitment. We need to break free from our traditionalist mindset, make a conscious effort to shift towards a data-led approach to our work and – perhaps most importantly – bring people with digital skills into our sector.
It’s easier said than done. Our industry doesn’t have the best reputation for being forward thinking when it comes to modern technology! We’re investing a lot of time and resources in building digital and technological skills requirements into our student bursaries, training schemes and apprenticeships – we want to show talented, technology-minded people that they can build a great career in our industry.
There’s no doubt that the pace of technological change presents threats to the status quo of our industry. But if we recognise disruptive innovation as a transformational opportunity to improve how we work and wholeheartedly embrace it, there is a strong future for geotechnics businesses. We cannot afford to bury ours heads in the sand and become obsolete.
Chris Merridew is managing director of Bachy Soletanche