Smaller firms still relevant even as construction sector goes high-tech

Workers installing a Prefabricated Bathroom Unit (PBU) at a site. More projects have adopted some form of advanced prefab technology from 10 per cent to 40 per cent.
Workers installing a Prefabricated Bathroom Unit (PBU) at a site. More projects have adopted some form of advanced prefab technology from 10 per cent to 40 per cent.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

There will be trickle-down benefits for subcontractors, says industry player

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.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline 'Small firms still relevant as construction goes high-tech'. Print Edition | Subscribe