CENTERSTAGE Innovation—An interview with David Koch “IN THE FUTURE, HOCHTIEF WILL BE AN IT-BASED CONSTRUCTION COMPANY.“
Complex buildings and challenging structural engineering works have long been unthinkable without the use of computers and software models in their design, planning, and project management. And now comes the next digital revolution, which is going to affect every part of the construction industry. From supply chain management to the realtime monitoring of large construction sites and the use of drones, everyday work in the world of construction and civil engineering is going to change substantially in the coming years. HOCHTIEF is increasing its commitment to its course of digitalization with a Group-wide initiative and an innovation company. But where can artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, augmented reality or autonomous machines really open up new possibilities? And how will the process pay off for the client? David Koch, Chief Risk, Organization and Innovation Officer, explains HOCHTIEF’s plans.
concepts Mr. Koch, why is HOCHTIEF launching a digital transformation initiative now as an important part of HOCHTIEF’s strategic transformation?
David Koch The construction industry is facing a fundamental restructuring. Just as in trade and other branches of industry, new technical tools are increasingly changing our products, services, and processes. We want to utilize the enormous opportunities that this offers.
concepts HOCHTIEF is a global group of companies. Are there joint development efforts?
Koch The technology initiative is being carried out in cooperation with ACS, CIMIC, and HOCHTIEF and involves all of the companies in both Groups. The development of individual application examples, locally adapted of course, will benefit everyone. Best practices by individual companies are also going to be shared within the Groups and used as required. We want HOCHTIEF to develop from within into a better-performing company. This will be a Group-wide change—a transformation that will affect all our business sectors, companies, and systems. We are grappling with technologies and programming methods that will create a completely new Group. In the future, HOCHTIEF will be an IT-based construction company.
concepts What advantages does HOCHTIEF expect to see from the application of new technologies?
Koch The use of digital environments—i.e. of artificial intelligence, automation, and connected equipment—will raise the quality of project management and optimize our processes. This will enable us to reduce the operational risks and above all create better working conditions for our employees.
concepts How exactly can new technologies reduce operational risks?
Koch Once our decision making is based on better analytical methods and we are able to make forward-looking decisions on the basis of real-time data, our business will be significantly more reliable and efficient. We also need systems that fully integrate our subcontractors and suppliers. In this area, we are orienting ourselves on other industries in which a great deal has already been automated and optimized. HOCHTIEF is a large corporation, but it also consists of around 1,000 companies. Each project forms its own unit with its own personnel, contracts, procurement, and so on.
concepts What advantages will clients see from the digital transformation?
Koch To name just one example, we are currently developing software for the automatic recording of earth movements at linear construction sites, which will later also help us to optimize earthworks. Until now, our geometric team had to go into the field and mark off contour lines every time we needed to survey a plot of land. It’s an enormous effort. Now we have a special technology that emits and reflects a laser beam. The time difference then provides the geometrical location of the point in question. Our objective is one day to develop this into a real-time monitoring system that we can use to immediately recognize conflicts and rapidly solve them. Such a system could solve many day-to-day conflicts. Everyone, including the client, would gain enormous transparency.
concepts How far does the scenario on which you’re working go? Will robots be building for us in the future?
Koch Lots of people imagine a robot as a humanoid figure with arms that walks around. But a robot can also be any machine that can be intelligently controlled. The first area in which we will see partially autonomous construction within a relatively short time will be linear construction sites, i.e. road construction sites with earthworks extending for several kilometers. Autonomously operating machines will carry out the work there. The Australian-based company Thiess—the world’s leading provider of mining services—already usesfully autonomous vehicles. There’s nobody behind the wheels of these dump trucks. The giant vehicles are filled and then just drive away and back. All on their own. Nonetheless, there will always be special jobs for which we need craftsmen. But the job descriptions will change. This development affects all areas of industry.
concepts Which international markets will be the first to demand or enable the new technological possibilities? Where is the readiness to innovate most clearly recognizable?
Koch The new technological solutions are spreading much faster than people realize. In the major population centers of China, you can only pay for almost everything using your cell phone—credit cards are seen as obsolete. In the U.S., autonomous driving is being widely tested. In Europe, people are a little more restrained, but nonetheless very thorough work is being done on the foundations of future solutions.