SINGAPORE (May 28): The Kallang Riverside, a 30-storey, mixed-use condominium development that will come with views of landmarks such as the Sports Hub and the Kallang Basin, will only be fully built next year. Yet, at a recent exhibition, visitors could already “enter” the building, “explore” the rooms, or even “measure” the dimensions of a wall. They only had to slip on an HTC Vive virtual reality (VR) headset and wield its remote controller to navigate their way around the simulation of the condo.

This VR set-up is just one element of Digit-Alpha, a digital shared platform made for the construction ecosystem. The platform was created by IDA Technology, a subsidiary of local architectural firm ID Architects. Digit-Alpha provides more than just VR simulation. It incorporates a slew of other digital construction technologies such as augmented reality, building information modelling (BIM) and project information management (PIM).

The names of these technologies may be quite a few mouthful, but they are all meant to help various professionals in the building and construction value chain function more efficiently.

For example, BIM is a 3D model-based process that enables more accurate planning before on-site work commences, thereby saving time and related costs. PIM, on the other hand, is a tool to help project managers get a better grip on their operations.

Digit-Alpha was created in partnership with the Building and Construction Authority Academy and three other firms specialising in building technology — Strategic Building Innovation, Newforma and BIMLife. The platform can improve real-time collaboration in the construction industry, says Jin Sung, CEO of IDA Tech. With the VR tool, for instance, architects and contractors can now “see” and “touch” a building that has not even been built.

Digit-Alpha will soon be piloted by main contractor Keong Hong Holdings and its partners in the upcoming construction of a new building for the National Skin Centre. Keong Hong was awarded the contract in March. It will be working with architectural firm CIAP Architects, engineering consultant Arup Singapore and subcontractor Great Resources M&E Contractors.

IDA Tech will also deploy Digit-­Alpha for the construction of TimMac @ Kranji, an upcoming high-rise hub developed by industrial landlord JTC Corp. Meant for companies in the business of metals, machinery and timber, TimMac @ Kranji is slated for completion in 2020. Eventually, Jin hopes to roll out Digit-Alpha at 30 construction projects over the next two years.

IDA Tech knows it cannot just sell the technology; it has to help as many users as possible thoroughly learn and make good use of Digit-Alpha, so that the full potential of this technology can be reached.

To this end, IDA Tech says it will provide customised training by assessing the needs of the whole value chain, from architects to subcontractors. “We will go through the journey with them for a year until they can fully acquire the skills. It’s not just about providing the technology but also enabling its application in the real world,” says Jin.

Avoiding re-works

The development of Digit-Alpha is not so that architects and contractors have something new and fancy to play with. Digit-Alpha helps improve communication as one segment of professionals hands off the project to another. The cost of so-called “re-works”, which refer to the modifications requested after contractors have done their part, can add up to as much as 20% of a typical construction project’s cost.

Er Ang Hooa, executive director of Keong Hong, sees multiple benefits in adopting new technologies early. First, he readily agrees that “re-works” can be a major pain — even for big contractors such as his company. “After you build the mock-up of the project, everyone has to go there. And if you don’t like it, you have to tear it down. This adds to costs, takes up a lot of time and is very unproductive,” he says. “In comparison, if you load up a VR model, what you see is what you are going to get. If there are any changes, the cost of redoing the model is insignificant compared with rebuilding a mock-up.”

VR will be especially useful for bridging physical distances. “It can also be useful for our overseas projects, like in the Maldives. It will mean that we won’t have to fly all the way there just to look at the layout and mock-ups,” says Er.

In addition, the use of VR can be seen as a way for Keong Hong to attract and retain new and young talent by debunking some long-held stereotypes that the construction industry is all about cement and dust. “[Construction] is an industry that many people shy away from, because they think it is an IT laggard. We feel that we need to make a change,” Er says.

Rethinking construction

The adoption of new technologies such as VR is taking place amid a broader push for the construction industry to “transform” and be more competitive. Construction is one of over 20 industries for which the government has released an “Industry Transformation Map”.

As it paints the broader picture of what is likely ahead, the government is taking a carrot-and-stick approach to nudge the various companies forward in the desired direction. For example, BIM is increasingly mandatory in tenders for public construction contracts, and the private sector is following suit.

On the other hand, technology providers such as IDA Tech are well positioned to capture more growth down the road. They have received support from the authorities, with government bodies sometimes picking up part of the tab.

The Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore (IMDA), one of the government bodies taking care of this sector, plans to support up to four more consortiums of builders over the next two years to implement Digit-Alpha.

This will benefit about 30 small and medium-sized enterprises in the industry. “Through such innovative use of immersive media, construction and related companies are now able to communicate in real-time from anywhere. This is especially beneficial for those managing multiple projects in Singapore and beyond,” says Samantha Su, IMDA’s director in charge of the built environment.

“IMDA looks forward to supporting more of such innovations to help construction companies transform operations, optimise resources and improve project delivery,” she adds.

Jin, who has worked in architecture for over 20 years, supports this move. “I think it is so important to create a new way of working for the young people in our industry. Without this, we will become severely limited in what we can do,” he says. Asked if he hopes to take Digit-Alpha beyond the construction industry, he laughs: “It’s possible to bring [such technologies] to many other industries, but I think to address productivity in construction is already a huge task. So, that’s where we will focus first.”

This article appears in Issue 832 (May 28) of The Edge Singapore which is on sale this week or subscribe to The Edge here