Thursday, 26 October 2017

Construction sector to train 80,000 Singaporeans in new tech under Industry Transformation Map

Jobs in construction sector to go high-tech
BCA plans for 80,000 trained in cutting-edge technology as part of industry transformation
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2017

Instead of sweat, mud and grime, Singaporeans joining the construction industry in the near future may be greeted with digital design and cutting-edge technologies, as the Government embarks on an overhaul of a sector that has long struggled to attract local workers.

"Essentially, we are speaking about transformation of the whole construction sector - the entire process and value chain, from end to end," Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said at the opening ceremony of the Singapore Construction Productivity Week yesterday.

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) is aiming to have 80,000 personnel trained in construction technology - which prioritises productivity and innovation over manual work - enter the industry by 2025. There are currently 32,600 trained in these areas.

The move is part of the newly launched Construction Industry Transformation Map (ITM), which is designed to pave the way for more attractive and highly skilled construction jobs in the sector. The move will also mean holding steady the figure of nearly 300,000 foreign workers the sector now relies on.

BCA chief executive officer Hugh Lim said: "We want to try to maintain the number of foreign workers at the current level, yet be able to cope with an increase in output as more big projects start kicking in."

BCA started to explore the feasibility of using new construction paradigms, such as Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA), a decade ago in order to boost productivity rates and change the industry into one that resembles a highly productive manufacturing line.

This is achieved through technology such as prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC), where large building modules manufactured in factories are assembled in a Lego-like manner.

Built this way, construction sites can see up to 40 per cent in manpower savings, which could mean faster completion times, fewer work incidents and a cleaner site.

BCA targets 40 per cent of all projects to adopt DfMA by 2020, up from the 10 per cent now. For HDB flats, 35 per cent of dwelling units will use concrete PPVC by 2019, making HDB one of the biggest adopters of the technology.

The ITM also charts the adoption of other high-tech methods in the construction pipeline, including green building technologies, and a move to integrate designers, builders, subcontractors and facility managers in the building's life cycle through an approach known as Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD).

Operations and maintenance of a building can cost up to four to five times more than actual construction, so with IDD, potential life cycle savings will be considerable.

Out of the 80,000 people to enter the industry, 35,000 will be trained in DfMA, 20,000 in IDD and 25,000 in green building technologies.

These high-tech methods are still more expensive, putting small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) at a disadvantage when it comes to early adoption. Reactions were generally positive, but a few SMEs had their qualms.

Said business development manager Lim Wei Chian of Tong Hai Yang Construction, an SME: " It will take some time for everyone to familiarise themselves with it, but we will get there."

Key transformation moves
The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2017

Build a higher-skilled workforce focused on digital technologies:

• To attract more IT-savvy Singaporeans, jobs will involve higher skills training in construction technologies, and offer more competitive salaries and a better work environment.

• More structured internships and a comprehensive training pathway for people to pick up new building technologies will be developed by a task force, comprising BCA, institutes of higher learning and industry associations.

Increase the use of more productive construction methods:

• Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) - a highly productive method of construction which moves traditional on-site work into off-site factory environments - should see 40 per cent adoption in all projects by 2020. The Government will also continue to roll out private land sales that specify the use of DfMA. There will also be up to 10 local prefabrication hubs by 2020.

• Construction processes are digitised through Building Information Modelling, which allows various stakeholders to collaborate from an early stage. This has been progressively mandated for certain key projects. BCA will develop standards to ensure interoperability of the Integrated Digital Delivery system which integrates designers, builders, subcontractors and facility managers in the building's life cycle.

Build progressive and collaborative firms:

• The Government will review public procurement practices to place higher weighting on non-price components such as productivity and quality scores. A working committee will be set up to look at collaborative contracting models to facilitate greater cooperation among firms.

Tech can boost construction sector's appeal, say observers
They highlight skills training and other changes as ways to attract more young people to the field
By Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2017

Structural engineer Colin Yip moved to the Amsterdam office of his employer, engineering consultancy Arup, in 2011. He was shocked to discover how high-tech his field could be.

For example, his team would carry out complex engineering calculations not manually, but by writing computer programs.

Back from the year-long stint, Mr Yip, 38, now promotes the use of such technology in the Singapore office. Gone are the days of spending a day or two on calculations when a change in building geometry must be analysed. He simply runs the configurations through a program, and is done within minutes.

"I can spend quality time on designing rather than on laborious work," he said.

The smarter use of technology is an important focus of the Construction Industry Transformation Map launched yesterday. The road map also looks to encourage greener buildings. Steps in the plan include the training of 80,000 workers with relevant new skills by 2025.

Observers say these changes can draw more young people to jobs in the construction sector.

"As they learn about the technology, students begin to realise the built environment sector can be as modern as any other sector," said Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) president Tan Thiam Soon.

To prepare people for new jobs in the sector like design engineers and logistics planners, the Built Environment SkillsFuture Tripartite Taskforce is charting training paths that involve institutes of higher learning (IHLs), internships and continuing education. The group will set up, among other things, a framework to update IHLs on industry developments, a capstone programme for final-year students and scholarships to attract students to the sector.

Courses at IHLs are now being updated to equip students with the latest skills. SIT, for example, is developing a new Design for Manufacturing and Assembly module for its civil engineering course.

National Trades Union Congress assistant secretary-general Zainal Sapari said the unions will guide workers on how to get trained in the new skills. They will also build a pool of mentors for students, and professionals, managers and executives, keen to join the sector. Mr Zainal is also executive secretary of the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union, which has about 6,000 workers in the construction sector.

He said some roles may change due to new technology, but he does not expect many to be out of work, as there is a shortage of Singaporeans in the industry.

Specialists Trade Alliance of Singapore president Nelson Tee added that older staff are willing to learn new technological skills, but must be given enough time. "In this line... we can have young, tech-savvy people as well as older workers with a lot of experience from different projects and from life," he said.

But technology can go only so far in raising the sector's appeal, said human resource expert David Leong of PeopleWorldwide Consulting, as a great deal of work is still done outdoors, such as the laying of pipes when pre-fabricated building components are assembled.

The key is to specify challenges that people are excited to solve: One example might be building subterranean cities, he suggested.

No faster homes for now, but a future-proof industry
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2017

Singaporeans hoping that the new road map to transform the construction industry would lead to lower home prices or shorter construction periods may have to wait a while to reap those dividends.

Though observers say that home owners and buyers will eventually see some tangible benefits, the ambitious Industry Transformation Map (ITM) unveiled yesterday is focused first on ensuring the sustainability of the worst-performing sector in Singapore, which was forecast to grow just 0.3 per cent this year.

Part of a national economic restructuring strategy, the ITM hopes to boost productivity through the use of more digital technology and sophisticated pre-fabrication methods, among other things.

To that end, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) aims to attract another 50,000 people to new construction technology jobs by 2025, bringing the total to 80,000.

It is also emphasising Design for Manufacturing and Assembly principles, which often rely on off-site pre-fabrication methods . By 2020, the ITM targets to increase the adoption of such projects to 40 per cent, up from the current 10 per cent.

The digital push is meant to eliminate redundant jobs, ensure greater efficiency and lift the sluggish construction sector.

None of this will make much difference to the man on the street soon.

For starters, the new technologies are more costly than traditional methods, requiring huge capital investments for machinery and robotics, which are then passed down the supply chain.

Experts cite the cost premium for pre-fabrication technology over traditional construction methods as being around 8 per cent to 10 per cent currently.

But it is heartening that this has already fallen from about 10 per cent to 20 per cent five years ago.

And this is expected to come down further, as builders gain confidence in the technology over time, said BCA deputy chief executive of industry development Neo Choon Keong.

Another item on the wishlists of many is speedier construction time. But while it is true that technology will likely lead to some time savings, the BCA is not specifying any goals - for now.

That, however, may be a good thing as it gives companies with different roles - like contractor and consultant - time to adjust to the new digital demands.

Currently, firms use a host of planning methods, from 2D paper plans to 3D modelling software to plan buildings, said Nanyang Technological University engineering professor Robert Tiong.

"We will need time to get everyone speaking the same language, but the good news is that a wider adoption of pre-fabrication methods should help to save on construction time, and balance out the learning curve in the meantime," he said.

Looking at the next five to 10 years, industry players are optimistic that the changes will make costs come down and buildings go up faster.

Home buyers can also anticipate more reliable, better-quality buildings, as pre-fabricated units built off-site in sheltered conditions can be assembled and inspected more thoroughly.

But what is even more important about the ITM is that it promises that the industry is not driven to extinction.

Currently heavily reliant on foreign labour, the construction industry has long had trouble luring Singaporeans to take on jobs associated with dirt and toil.

But by keeping current foreign worker limits stable and encouraging new jobs at the same time, the authorities are nudging more young blood towards an elevated industry that now demands more technical know-how, and also offers a slightly more comfortable working environment.

As Singapore Contractors Association Limited president Kenneth Loo put it: "If you have a completely backwards industry that no one wants to join, nothing can ever be cheaper or faster. We are pumping in a bit more now, but that is to keep this industry alive and sustainable."

Smaller firms still relevant even as construction sector goes high-tech
There will be trickle-down benefits for subcontractors, says industry player
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2017

While the new technology advocated by the recently announced construction sector overhaul favours bigger firms with resources to invest, industry players stressed that the plan does not render smaller companies irrelevant.

For starters, some like Building and Construction Authority (BCA) deputy chief executive Neo Choon Keong noted that the transformation of construction methods will not happen overnight, giving smaller companies time to embrace more sophisticated prefab ones.

"The majority of work needed to be done, for a start, will be closer to conventional methods," he said, citing the target of increasing the proportion of projects adopting some form of advanced prefab technology from 10 per cent to 40 per cent.

The goal was one of several unveiled at Tuesday's launch of the Construction Industry Transformation Map to rejuvenate the slowest growing sector in Singapore.

It included getting more local workers into the industry and introducing new construction methods like prefabricated pre-finished volumetric construction (PPVC) - where entire rooms are built in a factory and given simple finishings before being stacked in a Lego-like manner.

Mr Neo added that in the long run, the adoption of Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) principles will also trickle down to benefit subcontractors tasked to work on bigger projects.

"Subcontractors are happy to work in a factory because they have better control over the work progress and workload, unlike if they were on site, where they have to kowtow to the weather."

"If a specialist contractor can tie up with a main contractor, his workload is more certain, his productivity is higher, then he can take on more work and become more profitable," he said.

Mr Neo was on a panel discussing the future of the construction industry, organised by the Singapore Contractors Association Limited (Scal) and part of the three-day BuildTech Asia 2017 trade show organised by Sphere Exhibits.

Similarly, Scal president Kenneth Loo noted that consolidation in the industry ultimately depends on supply and demand: "If the quantum of work in the market is sufficient, then the ecosystem will naturally support that."

Panel moderator and Singapore Business Federation chief executive Ho Meng Kit agreed, adding that it is more important to manage their downsides.

To that end, Mr Neo said the BCA is looking at setting up an office to guide smaller firms through the digital transformation although he not provide further details.

Earlier yesterday, the BCA also launched a PPVC guidebook compiled by other practitioners to take interested firms through the tech process.

SMEs The Straits Times spoke to yesterday said they were more excited about some parts of the ITM than others. ANR Construction & Engineering managing director Ravitz Goh said he appreciated the use of 3D models to help him "spot a design fault before we build the whole thing".

But the push for more prefab tech, he said, did not feel relevant to him, as his company works primarily on small-scale projects like bungalows.

"If precast is the eventual way to go, then the moulds (for bungalows) will be very costly," he said.

Encouraging IT-savvy youth to take industry to next level
By Ng Jun Sen, The Straits Times, 27 Oct 2017

As a child, Emma Tan Xin Rong tagged along with her civil engineer father to his work at construction sites.

Now 17, the Singapore Polytechnic (SP) student is following in his footsteps - but on a different path. Instead of learning the old labour-intensive methods of construction, Emma is picking up computer programming, digital design and modular construction skills as part of her civil engineering course.

"The world is changing, and I am now learning things that my dad doesn't know about," she said.

From young tech wannabes to women who used to shun the male-dominated construction industry, different groups are now being wooed to join the sector.

The success of these efforts will determine if the Government can achieve its goal of reducing the construction industry's dependence on foreign workers.

Practically all the construction workers here are foreigners, numbering some 300,000.

There are no available statistics on the foreign-local breakdown for the overall industry, it wants more of such jobs to go to Singaporeans.

Two-thirds of those trained - numbering 32,600 - in skills like digital design are Singaporeans and permanent residents, said a Building and Construction Authority (BCA) spokesman. "We would like to grow this proportion as they represent good jobs for Singaporeans."

The construction sector accounts for close to 6 per cent of Singapore's gross domestic product and employs 14 per cent of the national workforce, and 5.5 per cent of the resident workforce.

At the Singapore Construction Productivity Week trade show yesterday, 250 young people from universities, polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) visited booths, where exhibitors showcased the latest in Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) techniques and Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems.

Most of the youth interviewed remarked how "exciting" the construction sector looks set to become, shattering their own expectations of the industry.

A task force, co-chaired by BCA, schools and industry associations, is now looking into creating a new curriculum for both students and those already working. Their recommendations are slated to be out by late next year, the BCA spokesman told The Straits Times.

One idea includes a capstone programme for current graduating students, potentially forming part of their pre-internship training. This could take shape in the form of an advanced final-year project that uses BIM and DfMA.

Said National University of Singapore final-year civil engineering undergraduate Tan Jing Qun, 24: "Growing up in an IT-savvy environment, we are the young generation that can be the pioneers for such technologies. There is a pressure on us to pick these all up quickly, but it is exciting."

Even lecturers themselves need to change, as BIM and DfMA technologies did not feature in their own education. Said BIM lecturer Melody Wu, 35, from ITE: "In my civil engineering days before joining ITE in 2013, I had heard of BIM but never really practised it. Now I have to pick up these skills quickly first before I can even teach the students how to do it."

As SP senior lecturer Teo Kian Hun puts it, the industry is now moving in a direction that is more attractive to eager young people.

Currently, many of the 160 or so students who join the School of Architecture and the Built Environment each year are male, have familial connections to someone within the industry or come from other countries such as Malaysia and Myanmar. The change in image for the industry will surely shake things up, he said.

"The industry used to be known as 3D - dirty, demeaning, dangerous. Now it is a different kind of 3D, one that leverages 3D design technologies to bring new groups into the fold."

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