Aconex has been delivering project-wide digital analytics solutions to the construction industry, amongst others, for 17 years. Originating in Australia, and still headquartered there in Melbourne, the company employs a growing global team of 850 delivering more than 16,000 capital projects, serving 70,000 user organisations in over 70 countries worldwide while boasting more than $239bn in project value achieved. Experiencing rapid growth during this time, it has evolved to focus on the document management area of the construction industry in particular, with a Connected Cost project solutions platform currently supplied to a range of industries, contractors and owners on a variety of projects.
“We face the challenge of low-adoption rates with new technologies in the construction industry where in many cases companies are still using outdated legacy tools,” reveals Guy Barlow, Global Commercial Director for Aconex. “I spent a number of years with Oracle working on their Primavera business unit so I’m very familiar with this space, because we had a competing product. Now, a lot of those products are built up of old technology, typically legacy on-premise, so the user experience is pretty weak given the prevalence of all the apps we’re so used to. Deploying the solution, getting it out to the client and running it in a way that can benefit them can be costly and time consuming on these legacy products.”
It’s a challenge Barlow is well placed to take on. With over 20 years of experience in the industry, he was brought on board at Aconex to market and normalise its project controls solution Connected Cost. Though that solution has only been in market for less than a year, it has a great heritage. Barlow explains the IP was purchased from an existing project controls company and replatformed: “When we listened to our clients, they told us they wanted a document management solution that could weave in cost so they could capture all the financial data on projects. We brought over the whole engineering team with it and retained that core to service 28 clients around the world in a number of different industries where it can improve the performance on projects.”
The Aconex Connected Cost controls solution is a SaaS (Software as a Service) cloud-based offering which can be up and running in a few hours following a period of bespoke training tailored to meet a client’s needs. “The advantage we have as a company that’s always been in the cloud, is the amazing data sets on the construction industry we can utilise to help our clients learn from previous projects around the world,” says Barlow proudly. “It’s a nice value add to them that we can provide these analytics on what makes for a successful project via such a highly intuitive platform.”
“We’ve been building stuff for thousands of years – from the first pyramid to the Shard there have always been cost-overruns and delays, right?” jokes Barlow. The problem he highlights is significant. “We’re often locked into ways that just don’t work or are not innovative. This industry is one of the slowest to adopt because it’s just been around so long. It’s not like IT, always looking for new and innovative ways to be better. The productivity rates are really low in construction (30-50%) but digitisation is being adopted faster now than ever before. In our own way, we’re trying to get the industry to move forward but the reality is a lot of people still run their business on spreadsheets which is not really a good way to run a multi-billion-dollar project.”
It’s billion-dollar projects working with customers like global infrastructure experts AECOM that have helped Aconex forge a formidable reputation. Helping to deliver a high-profile government contract on Boston’s Green Line rail extension, Aconex provided project controls for the tracking and reporting of 400 certifiable elements in 12 different disciplines across seven contracts, featuring up to 7,000 drawings per contract and with more than 500 common specifications. “I would use Aconex for every project I have going forward,” says AECOM Vice President Roger Gagnier, praising Aconex for a complete solution that encompasses budget and forecasting, progress and performance, programme management, contract administration and payment applications.
Barlow notes a significant move across the industry to gigaprojects like these with many now costing in excess of $50bn. “If we continue to manage projects like these the way we’ve done in the past, the failure rates will increase. We want to show businesses there is a way to escape the low margin, high risk cycle. There’s a need for the industry to continue to look at tech as a way to innovate and our Connected Cost solution can be part of that,” he maintains. The company gave the first UK presentation of its latest tech at London’s Project Controls Expo last November. While appreciating that the more exciting areas of development in the construction industry around BIM and AR can really aid efficiency, Barlow believes that a strong project controls solution underpinning innovation can help deliver long term. “Risk management is not that sexy but managing money on these projects is pretty damn important!”
Warming to this theme, Barlow jokes: “I remember when a billion dollars was a lot of money.” Now, with multi-billion projects commonplace Barlow looks to the east for the next wave of business. “We’re seeing a huge spend in countries like China – they’re building something like 75 new airports in the next decade. They’re planning projects which will cost anything up to $90bn. Even in Australia when you look at the LNG (liquified natural gas) projects they’re spending around $50bn. We’re seeing increase in dollar value which is a proxy for complexity – the bigger the project, the riskier and more challenging it can be. If we continue to see business done the way it currently is, on spreadsheets, you’re only going to see a higher number of errors, cost overruns and increased political and regulatory backlash as a result of that,” warns Barlow, who says Aconex is well placed to mitigate these risks. “If these projects around the world grow in size and scope, it really is going to be a wake-up call to get the technology and processes right in order to avoid what could be very dangerous and politically significant failures.”
Barlow views the growth in capital projects in Asia (Aconex is working on an $18.5bn project with the Hong Kong Airport Authority), where the territory is “nation building”, as particularly exciting. “When they build a smart city, it’s got to have airports, rail, roads, power, vertical buildings… You’re talking about building another London in five years, but London’s been 2,000 in the making. It’s a big market for us, but Europe and the US are thriving too with HS2 in the UK and existing infrastructures are being upgraded.”
Work on existing infrastructure projects like the M25 in the UK demonstrates the ability of Aconex to bring continuity and stability. Announced in the summer of 2017, Aconex partnered with Connect Plus to strengthen the highway asset care of one of the longest city bypass routes in the world (188km), used by more than 200,000 vehicles each day, helping to fulfil NEC3 Engineering and Construction Contract projects ranging in value up to £10m.
“With Aconex, we will extend collaboration deeper into the contractor environment and use the platform for day-to-day communications with stakeholders, including monthly reports of key performance indicators (KPIs) to our community,” says Simon Wilkinson, Commercial Manager for the M25 programme at Connect Plus. “The contractors will have vertically integrated views of all their projects through a live dashboard and be able to control access to their data in a secure environment. They can also mine their data to improve productivity and quality while controlling costs. Innovation is at the forefront of everything we do, and the Aconex platform will take us to the next level in empowering our community.”