Smaller contractors face obstacles adopting technology in construction

Smaller contractors face obstacles adopting technology in construction

Singapore's construction sector is set in its traditional building methods. Channel NewsAsia takes a hard look at the construction industry and explores how it can get off the ground. 

SINGAPORE: From the looks of its temporary office - a container sandwiched between buildings at Kampong Ubi Industrial Estate - mid-sized contractor B19 Technologies doesn’t seem like much.

But it is quietly trying to make a change in the construction industry.

It is one of the first companies in Singapore to use Mass-Engineered Timber (MET), a type of building material where strong, solid wooden pieces are cut and made in factories, and brought just-in-time to be assembled on-site.

B19’s managing director Kang Choon Boon, who used the timber product to build Nanyang Technological University’s new sports hall The Wave, likened a structure made with MET to a do-it-yourself product – one that even workers with basic skills can install.

Mr Kang said that using MET will increase construction cost by 20 per cent compared to using reinforced concrete, but believes cost will tumble when more firms embrace the material as there will be economies of scale.

Meanwhile, its other benefits are: manpower savings, shorter construction time, and a much greener product than other types of building materials.

It is also a material the Government has been pushing for, as it moves most of the construction work off-site and improves productivity. Using such prefabrication methods and adopting digital tools are key thrusts in the Industry Transformation Map for the construction industry launched by the Ministry of National Development on Tuesday.

So why is it that B19 was only able to apply the method to a handful of projects?

“We depend very much on the developer and the client on what their requirements are,” Mr Kang said, adding that some of the big boys are still used to the traditional methods of construction and unwilling to “accept new technologies”.

A similar sentiment was shared by PQ Builders, another mid-sized contractor.

“We are not the decision maker,” said PQ Builder’s director Peh Ke-Pin. “It’s a top-down approach."

Mr Peh said that his company, which has about 200 employees, has spent close to S$1.5 million on research and construction technology. They have also tapped on government grants to finance their purchases. Still, they are limited by their size.

The issue of maintenance also throws a spanner in the works, especially for firms like his, which are often tight on cash. The current downturn in the construction sector does not help either, he said.

"Some projects may use (a particular) equipment, but after the project’s (done), the equipment may not be applicable to other projects,” Mr Peh said. “It needs some place to sit, so the storage cost will also be (an) issue”.

Besides the need to pay for a place to park their equipment, Mr Peh said the company would also have to incur extra cost to service them.

In response, the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) said that it is not “deaf” to the needs of small and mid-sized firms – the agency told Channel NewsAsia it is now exploring a model for companies to lease mid-range equipment.

INVEST IN THE FUTURE

While companies incur extra costs to acquire technology, they have to be willing to invest to cement their lead, industry observers said.

Mr Chong Kee Sen, the immediate past president of The Institution of Engineers, Singapore said that contractors who begin to use technology “would be the first movers”.

“It can (bring) greater opportunities for your work in Singapore,” Mr Chong said, adding that it is an “exportable skill” which firms can use to bid for and work on infrastructure projects outside of Singapore.

As Asia grows, local contractors cannot keep relying on foreign labour, said Ms Leong-Kok Su Ming, the deputy group director of BCA’s construction productivity and quality group.

“With globalisation, and Asia and Southeast Asia progressing and maturing, there will be more issues with manpower crunch,” she said.

Going high-tech is also one way to draw fresh faces into an industry seen as dirty, dangerous, and demanding, one industry veteran added.

"It becomes more attractive for young people… to move into the construction industry, because of the automation and new technology employed,” said Dr David Chua Kim Huat, a professor at the National University of Singapore’s civil and environmental engineering department.

Meanwhile, there are government grants that companies can tap on to help finance technology adoption.

Under the BCA’s Construction Productivity and Capability Fund (CPCF), which amounts to about S$800 million, industry players can apply for monetary support to upgrade their companies - from sending workers for training, to procuring new equipment.

In response to queries from Channel NewsAsia, the BCA said that as of end-September 2017, more than S$480 million under the CPCF has been committed.

It added that more than 9,000 companies have benefitted from the fund, of which more than 90 per cent are small and medium-sized firms.

Source: CNA/hm

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