As Canada’s construction sector faces a shortage of skilled workers and tradespeople, some insiders predict that digital technology will fill the gap – but a new report shows that worksites have been slow to adapt.
A survey of 275 companies by KPMG Canada found that while Canadian property developers are keen on new digital construction technology, known as con-tech, many are not making it an investment priority.
“Nearly nine in 10 construction companies say that … digital technology can help make their labour force more effective,” says the June, 2023, report. “Yet Canada’s construction industry, which spans residential and commercial real estate, industrial, institutional, civil and infrastructure, has been slow to adopt new digital technologies.”
The exceptions can be dramatic. For example, one Canadian project that stands out for its use of con-tech is Canada Post’s new $470-million Albert Jackson Processing Centre in east Toronto.
“The biggest challenge to adoption is adaptation. Technology is changing so fast that the industry has to play a constant game of catch-up.
— Benjamin Shinewald, president and chief executive officer of BOMA Canada
The designers and developers created a digital “twin” replica to solve construction issues and update plans – a process called building information modeling (BIM).
“BIM was critical to the project’s success,” says Peter Armstrong, vice-president of the project leaders’ Southern Ontario team for Colliers Canada.
Another noteworthy deployment of con-tech took place in November, 2021, when Spot the Robo-dog made an appearance at Cadillac Fairview’s 47-storey, 1.2-million-square-foot project at 160 Front. St. W in Toronto.
Spot was put to work at the site by PCL Construction Company and Pomerleau Construction. The companies equipped the techno-pooch with 360-degree cameras, a laser scanner, and air quality and GPS sensors to feed data into a smart construction tech platform.
The robot’s digital sniffing helps designers and project managers in off-site offices to work seamlessly with workers on site. It can also perform tasks in spaces where it’s too dangerous for workers to go.
“Everybody loves that robot dog,” says Jordan Thomson, a senior manager with KPMG’s global infrastructure advisory group. “It doesn’t mean humans are going to be replaced. Spending $100,000 on a robot dog can free up an engineer to do other value-added work.” (Spot sells for a reported US$74,500.)
Notably, while Spot may be the way of the future, the 160 Front St. W. project used human ironworkers to put a giant steel dome on the roof in early April, 2023.
Much of the technology on the massive site, which spans the equivalent of six Canadian Football League fields, focuses on reducing the building’s environmental footprint, for example, by covering 60 per cent of its roof with solar panels.
Tom Rothfischer, audit partner and national industry leader of building, construction and real estate at KPMG Canada, says the survey reflects the discrepancy between tentative use of con-tech in Canada and immense interest in trying it.
“We’re seeing a definite recalibration taking place in the construction sector,” says Mr. Rothfischer. “While many companies are still just at the beginning of their digital build, leaders see the power of technology to reshape the way they work and they plan to invest heavily.”
KPMG found that while 73 per cent of firms it surveyed think the Canadian construction industry lags behind other countries in adopting con-tech, 80 per cent or more are excited about its possibilities and believe that technology will make them more competitive. Yet only 46 per cent say they plan to spend more than 11 per cent of their corporate operating budgets on technology and digital transformation in the near future.
“Canada is lagging behind,” says Mr. Armstrong. “A lot of new technology in Canada is being used to draw and design projects, often in 3D, but then extending this tech, for example by using computer-aided fabrication of materials, is not happening widely here.”
Canadians in the construction sector are relatively slow to invest in con-tech for several reasons, says Benjamin Shinewald, president and chief executive officer of BOMA Canada, umbrella group for building owners and managers.
“The biggest challenge to adoption is adaptation. Technology is changing so fast that the industry has to play a constant game of catch-up,” he says.
Another challenge is making sure the con-tech investment brings the right kind of change, Mr. Shinewald adds.
“Buildings may seem to be incredibly static, but in fact they are extraordinarily complex, technology-driven ecosystems. Software, hardware and innovation have an enormous impact on occupant wellness, carbon emissions, profitability and more,” he says.
An additional challenge is cost, says Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association. “There is a cost to investing in digitization that isn’t necessarily shared among all parties in the procurement process. Margins are slim in construction, especially for small- and medium-sized contractors, making it increasingly difficult for them to adopt these types of innovations,” she says.
Mr. Armstrong says Canadians may be slow to bring in more con-tech because skilled tradespeople in Canada are still relatively affordable, compared with other countries.
“This may change in Canada as our workforce ages and the technology is necessary to get the work done,” he says.
“The efficient allocation of trades is one of the industry’s most-pressing challenges and opportunities,” KPMG’s Mr. Thomson says. Already, 86 per cent of companies in Canada are finding that shortages of skilled tradespeople affect their ability to bid on projects and meet deadlines, he says.
There’s hardly any limit to what con-tech might be able to achieve, Mr. Rothfischer says.
“3D printing technologies have been adapted to lay concrete and build complex steel shapes. Robots can lay bricks and tie steel reinforcement bars,” he explains. “Drone-based surveying can help contractors quickly and accurately lay out work, measure quantities and monitor progress.”
Technology can also make jobs safer for workers, Mr. Armstrong adds. “For example, there are already tech-laden exoskeletons available that fit onto workers’ shoulders, to do overhead work rather than keeping their own arms above their heads for hours,” he says.
“The trick is to integrate these things into construction so that people and technology work together.”