The construction industry is in a state of flux with technology being one of the key drivers. In a candid chat with our Chief Technology Officer and co-founder, Stefan Boddy, we try to decode how technology is changing the industry and take a sneak peek at his VisiLean story. With his experience spanning academic research and professional software development in the construction industry, Stefan shares his unique insights with us. We dive straight in.
From M&E Building services technician to research to the CTO of VisiLean – could you please tell us your story?
I started my working career as a technician for a building services consultancy. However, that was not my first choice for a career. I first wanted to design cars, then wanted to be an architect but I wasn’t quite bright enough to be either. The work I did as a technician involved a lot of drafting, which I did the traditional way on a drawing board until AutoCAD was adopted by the company. AutoCAD was a significant adjustment for a guy that hitherto had had zero interest in or interaction with computers. A few years into using AutoCAD, I saw greater integration with other design software happening. I figured that in the not-too-distant future, the engineers I was taking instructions from would be designing directly into the computer with the layouts and details being an automatic product as a result of that work, making me and my role redundant.
During this period, I’d undertaken some education in AutoCAD customisation and in microelectronics and computing in order to stay abreast of developments. It was here that my interest in development really started, first with simple scripts to automate tasks, then with MS Office integration with AutoCAD. I decided that I should follow that interest and take up an IT degree to improve my chances of staying employed.
However, my goal was to return to the construction industry in an IT management or development role once I got my degree. I joined the University of Salford and graduated in 2000 just as the IT bubble burst and jobs were hard to come by. By happy coincidence, a role on a construction computing research project opened up at the same time, and so a career in academia at Salford began. I did extensive research and eventually one thing led to another and I met Dr. Bhargav Dave. He had this idea for integrating Lean and BIM principles and I had been at that point looking at ideas around visibility and accountability in construction and information systems. We came together, and that is how we embarked on what later became VisiLean. The first version was a desktop application written in C#. Eventually funding issues meant I had to move on from Salford and so I decided to get involved in full time professional software development in industry sectors outside of construction, but all the while I remained a major contributor to VisiLean and the product we were building. It was in September 2021 that I joined VisiLean full time as the CTO. By then, VisiLean had become a life larger than me. Being a part of VisiLean has been a rollercoaster ride at times. It has excited me; it has made me tired and it has scared me, but I’m in it for the long haul now.
Why do you think technology like VisiLean is needed in the Construction Industry?
Traditionally, the construction industry has not been quick at adopting new technology. It has been chaotic for a long, long while, with information out of date or simply not available and stakeholders that are sometimes adversarial in nature. It is into this context that we brought VisiLean in an effort to smooth production with better information flow through better availability and relevance.
A tool like VisiLean promotes collaboration over argument and blame, by facilitating commitments between parties and better handovers with the right information available. For firms keen on following a ‘Lean’ construction agenda, we are an excellent fit. ‘Lean’ is a growing initiative in construction that is gaining momentum from larger and medium-sized entities in the industry. What we do is, we make technology easy to use for everyone involved. The burden of collaboration is reduced too!
VisiLean is a Cloud-based product, what made you choose this route over traditional IT? What benefit does it bring?
We did not choose a cloud-based route when we started thinking about VisiLean. It was after we decided to go commercial, that we designed a web-based product. This has helped us greatly. With a web-based product, all you have to do is open a web browser and start using it. There is no need to download or install anything new. It is also easy for us to deliver features, updates and support continuously rather than on an annual release cycle. We have control of the IP and software and can see how our customers use our product in real time.
Being cloud-based allows VisiLean to offer seamless transitions between desktop and handheld devices – with our web and mobile applications. We have never really faced connectivity issues so far, but we have incorporated an offline mode in our mobile app as construction sites aren’t always conveniently served with networking or a mobile signal. Cloud-based services are also a more natural fit for allowing stakeholders from different organisations to collaborate in a shared environment, which is a large part of what we are about.
VisiLean is constantly evolving and adding new features. How do you decide on the direction it will go in?
Our customers drive a significant proportion of what we do. They tell us what they need, we try to incorporate certain elements, it is an ongoing conversation. Then there are the features and the grand ambitions that we see as offering value but keep under our hats while we work on them. These are features that will help our users and make us unique in an extremely competitive market. These ideas normally come from the founders, our advisors or are occasionally sparked by conversations with our customers. Finally, there are technology updates that help us to offer additional features or keep us current. We combine all of these into a single roadmap and work on them as priorities dictate.
What were the challenges that Covid 19 posed?
Covid 19 was an opportunity and a challenge. It drove home the message that the industry had to adapt very quickly to stay productive. It also brought VisiLean to focus. We added a new feature to help companies with deploying their workforce on the site in safe numbers. It was a challenge, however, during the initial days to get the clients onboard because they were more comfortable with face-to-face interactions – but yeah, we managed to tackle the issues.
The construction industry is going through some major changes – technology, sustainability etc. Where do you think it will be in 10 years and what part can VisiLean play in this?
I saw it moving a lot faster when I left to go to University thinking I would be redundant within 5 years or so. I was wrong. 25 years later, the construction industry is still employing people to do more or less what I was doing when I left it, just with more advanced software. So, the honest answer would be I do not know.
However, things are in a state of flux. Things are accelerating in particular areas related to centralised data spaces. Sustainability is a major driver. What we can do to measure and reduce the carbon footprint of construction is also a major issue. We are thinking about how to incorporate these sustainability measures into VisiLean. How being ‘Lean’ will reduce waste in construction sites is an ongoing topic too.
The big topics in IT right now are machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI). How they could be incorporated in construction might include more rapid virtual prototyping, what-if simulations in planning, both the built facilities themselves and the process of putting them up. Virtual Reality and augmented reality will make a huge difference on site. Centralised cloud-based systems will be the way forward. There is still quite a preponderance of design software in construction that is workstation-based, this might move online or on to the cloud.
We are still trying to see what we can incorporate from these changing technological trends to serve our customers better. The customers, to a huge extent, do drive a lot of what we do. The main challenge is not incorporating the latest trends into VisiLean for its own sake, it is all about how people adopt it, and how the industry adapts to change. Finding the use case is also part of the challenge when it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). We are open to adopting whatever helps our customers.
If not VisiLean…then?
I would still be developing software somewhere – I do not know where or in which industry, though. However, right now I am learning to be the CTO at VisiLean.
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