9 September 2017

Construction group Bouwgroep Willemen goes for innovative technology

ING organised a seminar on ‘The Connected Building Site’ at the Matexpo trade show. The focus was on IoT (Internet of Things) applications for building sites. We met Alexander Laquière as one of the panellists. Laquière is head of innovation and digitisation at Willemen construction group. In other words the ideal person to ask a few questions!

Willemen Group is known as an early adapter of innovative technology. Why are you really going for this?

By introducing innovative technology, we can make that difference. Not only does it speed up the construction process, but it also reduces the quality costs significantly and moreover improves our employees’ safety on the site. We are therefore convinced that this is the next evolutionary trend. Within the foreseeable future, innovative technology will no longer be an option, but a must.

Can you give us some examples of innovations you have implemented in the last five years?

In our ‘W-Care’ department, we use the Internet of Things (IoT) for buildings we build ourselves and also those where we are charged with maintenance. Built-in sensors collect data enabling us to predict when maintenance will be needed. Or they control HVAC, lighting and cleaning in a certain area based on the actual presence of people.

On the sites themselves for example we cast sensors into concrete walls or into the asphalt in road works.These sensors report when optimum hardness has been reached, something we used to determine based on experience and gut feeling. In this way we work a far more precisely which benefits quality and moreover lets us start the next phase sooner.

At the moment we are working on a data analysis project to have even more structured data. You can only draw pertinent conclusions based on such data.

How does the IoT help you to organise building sites?

We use trackers for large and small materials.These help us to maintain our material inventory – extremely handy for small material – and for tracking and inspecting larger material. This lets inspections take place on the site itself and we avoid delays due to material not being inspected in time.

Safety is a top priority to us and here too technology plays its part. For example we are presently working on a research project with ‘wearables’, in cooperation with manufacturers and the academic world. Sensors are incorporated into the site personnel’s clothing. For example, a receiver in an excavator ensures that the machine is stopped as soon as someone comes too close to the digging arm.

The next step is self-operating machines, but they are still too expensive. Within a couple of years this will hopefully be possible.

How has your CEO approached the introduction of this innovative technology?

He anticipated the emotions the changes would cause and acted on them. Many employees were suspicious initially and in some cases there was even some wounded pride. For this very reason we regularly published an internal blog about change. We also organised a big staff event where we demonstrated everything the Willemen Group will be able to do thanks to these new technologies. That boosted our employees’ trust and also their engagement.

In the back office too, the innovations have also had an impact. To be able to process both present and future data we will have to invest in a new, higher performance ERP system.

What is the biggest construction challenge in the technological field?

Beyond doubt it is to find the correct standards and a uniform platform on which the various applications can be connected. But even more than the technical aspect, it is crucial that the various players overcome their mutual distrust and realise that information sharing is essential for high-performance and long-lasting construction activity.

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