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Digitalisation in Europe: this is where we stand today

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If a software suite is active in several countries, it offers numerous international possibilities for main contractors. We will discuss the digitalisation of the three countries in which we are already active and then cast an eye over the rest of Europe.

Germany

In recent years, ‘digitalisation’ has emerged as the favourite word of German politicians, even though the fax machine continues to clatter away in the offices of many civil servants and official bodies. “The difference with the Netherlands is enormous,” explains correspondent Derk Marseille to BNR. digitalisation is not ingrained in the German way of working, because the fax is still part of official communication. “It is a mindset among civil servants. During the first coronavirus lockdown, it became evident that they could not work from home. Apparently, 90% of the civil servants had to go back and forth with USB drives.” Only then could they work further on their home computers. It is extremely insecure, because you never know what happens to that data between the office and home.

Research has also shown that nine out of ten German authorities do not have a digital strategy. Three quarters of respondents did however indicate that digitalisation has the highest priority. The reason why digitalisation is so difficult to get off the ground in Germany is because of the significantly ageing workforce. Young people bring fresh ideas with them. In 2020, Germany was not even anymore in the top 10 of the fastest countries to digitise. By comparison, in 2019 the country was still in sixth place. The majority of companies in Germany acknowledge the significant efficiency shortcomings in their own organisations: half of the companies have faith in more IT and better product quality to fill these gaps. Moreover, six out of ten companies manage digitalisation projects with the greatest quick-win perspectives and process automation. 

For decades, analogue technology has led to considerable success in the German construction industry. As a result, many companies in the sector find it difficult to relinquish processes and working methods they are passionate about. This can clearly be seen when you look at the state of digitalisation in the German construction industry. Companies are making slow progress in their digital transformation and are reluctant to take advantage of digital opportunities. Many of the companies are still working with traditional 2D models, for example, instead of the more modern 3D technology. Digital planning software is rarely used in companies.

And this, while targeted digitalisation saves about 30% of the planning capacity. digitalisation offers the possibility of identifying and eliminating risks in construction projects at an early stage. As a result, construction projects are realised much more efficiently. Despite this enormous potential, the digitalisation of the construction industry is progressing slowly or even stagnating in some cases in comparison with other sectors of the economy.

The Netherlands

A third (32%) of Dutch companies say that their business operations have been largely or almost completely digitised. Whereas 36% indicate not to have digitised their business operations or, if so, hardly at all. Small companies are less advanced with digitalisation than large companies.

B&U and Infrastructure contractors are using more software suites than small companies. They have software suites for different work processes. Companies typically have software suites for financial administration, invoicing and costing.

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is on the rise in the Netherlands. The majority of companies have been working with BIM for more than five years, but that usually takes place at the lowest level (3D modelling). Less than 10% also use BIM for the planning, costing and management. The primary objective for using BIM is to improve communication with partners in the chain. Most construction companies already work with advanced methodologies and technologies such as BIM, Lean Planning, 3D modelling and teleconferencing. However, 98% continue to use a lot of paper, especially in the form of large-format drawings. BIM does not reach the workplace. The respondents expect this percentage to decrease to 82% in the next few years.

According to the EIB ‘Report on Digitalisation’, the Netherlands is one of the best performers when it comes to digitalisation. The level of acceptance of individual technologies lies above the European and US average.

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Belgium

“Belgium is certainly not a pioneer in Europe,” says Véronique Vanderbruggen, director of Public Relations at the Belgian Construction Confederation. “Our neighbouring countries have already embraced many innovations that still need to be introduced in Belgium, such as drones, 3D printing and BIM. The digital transformation, however, is now gaining ground. Could Belgium soon be one of the pioneers? My message to construction professionals is to consider the innovations that are being introduced and integrate them into your company as soon as possible. They add tremendous value. The construction industry is rapidly becoming a high-tech sector.”

Of course, the large Belgian companies have already been working on digitalisation for many years, but digitalisation also affects smaller companies. Companies that want to work for the government

must use the digital counter ‘e-loket’, e-procurement and e-invoicing. digitalisation is essential for contractors who want to professionalise their services and they need to prepare for this. In Belgium, this is being done through training courses, targeted information sessions and publications that show Belgian construction professionals examples of what the technology can do for them.

It is especially important to discuss the subject as much as possible, preferably at an informal level, to counter the resistance to digitalisation in Belgium. Once employees see the benefits of digitalisation, it will increase support. Older colleagues who are convinced of the benefits, often prove to be the biggest advocates, says the Belgian Construction Confederation. The technology changes quickly. Therefore, large companies should seek standards and decide which forms of digitalisation best suit their needs. SMEs can optimise their processes with ‘lighter’ forms.

France

The percentage of digital users in France lies under the EU and US average for all sectors. The acceptance level of individual technologies such as 3D printing and robotics lies above the EU and US average. The reasons French construction professionals give for the slow assimilation of digitalisation is ‘the lack of available personnel’ and ‘labour market regulations’. 

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The adoption of BIM is not mandatory in France. There are no legal requirements or regulations for implementing BIM. It is, however, strongly encouraged by the government, especially for large government projects. In 2017, for example, a BIM road map for standardisation was issued, aimed at securing a leading position in Europe with regard to the digitalisation of processes in the construction industry. With this document, the government recognises the need for standardisation, which is an important condition when it comes to collaboration in BIM processes. In addition, at the end of 2018, the BIM 2022 Plan was launched to motivate construction companies to introduce BIM into their day-to-day operations.

The exchange of information and collaboration between the numerous construction partners is often hampered by an extremely fragmented process. This lack of synergy impedes the industrialisation of the construction process, slowing down the increase in productivity. In France, a study by the INSEE (the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques) indicated that the added value per productive working hour of workers in the construction industry since 1995 has not risen as strongly as in the manufacturing industry. This situation is due in part to the limited digital capabilities of the construction companies.

The rest of Europe

There is an increasing trend towards digitalisation across Europe, especially in the Netherlands and Denmark. Belgium recognises the importance of digitalisation, although according to the European Investment Bank (EIB) it is still lagging behind other European countries. The EIB has prepared a report to determine which EU countries are well prepared to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. The bank argues that the pandemic could be the turning point that ultimately accelerates digitalisation. The report uses the digitalisation index to indicate the degree to which companies are digital and how they evaluate digital infrastructure and investments. The acceptance of digital technologies in Europe is slow in comparison with the United States. The US is ahead of all European countries that use digital technologies, especially with respect to the construction industry. The digital adoption rate of companies in the US is approximately 60%, while in the EU this is about 40%.

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According to the EIB, the best performing EU countries in selected fields of digitalisation are:

  • The Netherlands – digital intensity and digital infrastructure;
  • The Czech Republic – investments in software and data and in improvements of the organisation and business processes;
  • Finland – formal strategic business monitoring system.

The United Kingdom, Italy, Poland and Ireland are trailing behind.

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