The Productivity Revolution: AI & Building Materials
Technology and AI are constantly changing the way we live and work. Now, they're changing the way we build.
Last month, we were joined by industry leading experts Frederic de Rougemont, Noa Tamir, Franz Haller and Mark Perkins to discuss the applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology in the building materials sector. Find out what they had to say...
What major operational issues exist in building materials, and how can AI help overcome these issues?
Noa Tamir – Ception
At Ception, we see two main focus areas – inefficient processes and operational safety concerns. Operational inefficiencies like poorly applied protocols and procedures create bottlenecks, impact productivity and increase costs. Likewise, on-site safety issues have the same effect – they affect productivity, slow down operations, and put people at risk. A significant cause of these two issues is human error or complacency, which is where AI can help make improvements. Utilising AI solutions can enhance employee performance and track details that the human eye would otherwise miss. It's a solution that can be used in conjunction with employees, not in place of.
Franz Haller – Mixteresting
We're seeing the most prominent issues and challenges around poor data input and lack of data points. The building materials sector is traditionally not great at recording data and adopting modern technology solutions, which puts us on the back foot for advancement and innovation. This is where low data AI solutions are becoming hugely popular and helping present a solution to the sector. As Noa mentioned, these solutions have the potential to enhance what a company is already doing, adding a layer of insight for employees that would otherwise not be there.
Mark Perkins – Peak AI
As Franz mentioned, many traditional building materials companies have quite archaic data systems. This limits their ability to forecast and highlight operational progress or improvement areas. AI can help provide companies with decision-making intelligence and insights that support forecasting and growth. Questions such as 'what materials do we have available?', 'where will we be short in the coming months?', or 'how can we streamline resource sourcing?' can all be answered with AI solutions and decision-making software. Machine learning has enormous potential to enhance staff performance and provide forecasting support to employees.
Frederic, what excites you based on what you've heard so far?
I'm very glad that safety has been covered in these discussions; that's exciting and a real focal point for the industry. As Noa highlighted, everyone must be safe when they work, but it also has strong ties to productivity. Safer working environments that mitigate risk will improve employee performance, and AI has the potential to support this. What's also exciting is the potential to understand company forecasts better. Knowing how to reduce waste, improve productivity and cut costs is vital information that every building materials company will want insights into.
It's also reassuring to hear everyone talk about how AI is not here to replace people. It's about enhancing performance and helping people work better. I think that's often the misconception across the building materials sector and is often the cause of poor digitalisation or AI adoption. There is undoubtedly a need for an improved understanding of the benefits of AI in the sector; so it's great to hear all of the speakers cover this.
What are the key barriers to the adoption of AI? How are you working around this?
As Frederic said, historically the building materials sector is a very conservative industry; this certainly presents a challenge to adoption. However, I think more and more companies are starting to understand that they need to adapt or they'll be left behind, so we are seeing change and more willingness to adopt AI and digital solutions. Again, as Frederic mentioned, there's certainly a discussion around education and removing those misconceptions. Once companies see that these solutions can improve productivity and benefit them, the conversation becomes easier. Equally, once you showcase that these solutions aren't here to replace humans, it becomes much less of an uphill battle.
It was always hard to get the key decision-makers involved when we first started. With digital adoption and AI being relatively new, sometimes it's hard to know who's remit this falls under, making it hard to reach the right staff. We're seeing more dedicated departments and roles focused on digital transformation, and a significant increase in companies reaching out to us instead of the other way around. Another key challenge, particularly in the cement sector, is proving that you can optimise profits and productivity without impacting the quality of the product. Companies have set ways of working and producing their resources, so they're understandably reluctant to change. However, once you can showcase that AI can optimise procedures with minimal change to ways of working, people become more open to change.
I do think that climate change is helping to remove barriers. Over the past few years, we've seen increasing societal pressure to create more sustainable building solutions, and companies are more willing than ever to explore opportunities for change. AI can play a central role in driving this transformation.
What customer insights can AI provide?
It's important to understand where your customers are in their cycle and how to engage with them at each stage of the journey. Without AI or decision-making solutions, you run the risk of misinterpreting your customer, not understanding their needs, and losing them entirely. AI can help to utilise data points and create dynamic segmentation, so you're providing real-time insights into your customer database. This provides great insights for our direct-to-consumer clients who need "always-on" insights into their customers' interests.
Additionally, AI and decision-making solutions are also helping to give businesses a competitive advantage. Utilising smart insights and real-time data, you can better understand things like product pricing, profit margins, and project delivery predictions. This all helps to protect the bottom line and drive growth.
How is AI challenging the status quo?
AI will help organisations stay ahead of the curve, especially in our space. It can help to provide optimised solutions quicker than competitors can. There's also a solid case to be made for supporting the skills shortages that exist across sectors. AI solutions can help create new jobs, support the development of existing staff, and pick up the slack where there are operational gaps or inefficiencies.
As Franz said, AI and technological innovation can support the growth of workers, especially the younger workforce coming through that perhaps won't have the right skillsets just yet but have that drive and desire for transformation. I think AI and tech can play a big role in improving the sector's attractiveness and encouraging more young people to explore a career in the building materials industry. We're certainly in an age of more tech-savvy junior employees who have different skillsets and interests. There is a real opportunity to utilise AI and tech to drive change across the industry while creating new job opportunities.
What holds organisations back from adopting AI and digital solutions?
In particular, for the building materials sector, we often see ourselves as a commodities business. We often look at it wrong and forget that we should be looking at our customer's needs and how we can bring added value. How can we stand apart from our competitors and ensure our clients remain with us? Digitalisation and AI can help with this, providing insights and value to our clients that would otherwise potentially be lost. I don't believe the building materials sector can innovate without customer involvement and making sure we're creating new solutions that meet demand (and future demand) is vital.
Sometimes we're worried about collaborating and innovating out of fear of losing our market hold or profit margins. I think this is something that we need to rectify, which applies to a wide range of sectors. Open innovation is key to progress for everyone, and AI will play a central role in this.
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