Major international collaboration led by HERA to position Aotearoa’s construction sector at the forefront of Construction 4.0

I was on leave in the middle of the Australian bush, koala spotting when we got the great news that our Endeavour Funding bid for $10.3 million had been successful. It is a project proposal that we had been working on for two years formally and really, we have been positioning for it over the past almost five years!

The need for this project had been brought to my attention during my member visits in my first 90 days as CEO of HERA, initially by Wayne Carson, Managing Director of D&H Steel Construction.  I continued to ask other members for their views in subsequent meetings. I heard the industry reflect back that this was a big issue.

How it was told to me (in summary) was that there was a nexus between design, construction and beyond. This was leading to inefficiencies. The supply chain was linear and fabricators, for example, were not being engaged in the process as much as they could be when designs were being established. This meant that designs were being set that were hard to construct. Fabricators had the knowledge to be able to make the designs easier to construct but weren’t usually engaged in that process. There was a lot of data and knowledge floating around but it wasn’t connected, optimised or in a form that designers could easily use.

I knew HERA had to do something to assist in solving that problem but I also knew that it was a broader problem for the sector…. including how decisions were optimised for sustainability (which became increasingly a focus). I also knew that this was going to be a technically challenging (and huge) project because it was going to require an Industry 4.0 approach (I hadn’t even heard of complexity science at that point).

That member feedback, along with HERA’s commitment to its vision “of securing tomorrow’s future by innovating today” is what led us on a four year long journey to get this project running (more on that below).


Why is this project important for the sector?

Currently, there is a profound limitation in the way that construction is performed in Aotearoa New Zealand. The challenge is that complex decisions are being made based on simple data inputs. The decision points in the process are done in linear silos with little inter-connection or data-derived decision support. The process is entrenched and far from optimised. For example, designers do not have adequate tools to optimise designs for ease of manufacture/fabrication, let alone the ability to resolve the conjoint considerations required to deliver design for sustainability, constructability, te ao Māori, resilience and affordability simultaneously. Such decisions require collection, connection and analysis of complex data sets. This challenge requires a complexity science and construction 4.0 approaches (design lead construction process) to solve these long-standing limitations and to revolutionise conventional construction.


Construction is a system that is greater than the sum of its parts

Construction data used to inform those decisions is typically considered in a linear fashion and does not accommodate the fact that it is a complex decision-making system that is greater than the sum of its parts.

To overcome these issues, new technologies of the 4th industrial age are required to transform construction from a linear to a circular system known as construction 4.0. Construction 4.0 promises the construction industry with a decentralised connection between the physical space and the cyberspace via ubiquitous connectivity. Therefore, the science problem is one of complex big data managing and connectivity.

The overarching science question, related to this science problem, is: how can a complex system and interactive data sets be sourced and used simultaneously to inform decisions made across the construction value chain that concurrently impact subsequent and preceding steps in that chain? That is, how can a process that is currently limited by its sequential nature be transformed, through novel use of data collection and analysis, to consider the interactive complexities that cross those linear boundaries?


In order to address this problem properly, the following research questions must be addressed:

  • How do we understand the interacting behaviours of this complex system as something that is more than the sum of its parts?
  • How do we capture this complexity versus merely reduce it, and how do we translate this into decision support tools for sector participants?
  • What are the appropriate Industry 4.0 technologies to be used?
  • What are the required protocols to ensure the required data is ready for integration?
  • What are the structural optimisation models required to be developed/identified?
  • What are the practical impacts of decision optimisation?
  • How can we incorporate the interface between indigenous knowledge and Construction 4.0?
  • What will ensure industry adoption?


This will be world leading research

This project will use complexity science to build upon developing nascent global Construction 4.0 knowledge. The research will be world-leading in an emerging area of international interest and create data-driven decision-making for the future of construction. It will also incorporate Mātauranga Māori interfaces, making it unique globally. It is important to note that MBIE has requirements relating to Vision Mātauranga and we want to make sure we are honouring these meaningfully versus ticking a box to merely get the funding.


There are several major advances expected in this project to make the work unique globally:

  • complex system data management science stretch – this project will take a complexity science approach to construction optimisation using customer input. This will develop the nascent global
  • Construction 4.0 knowledge and the technical stretch in the item below. It considers complex interactions between cost, sustainability performance, structural performance, constructability, and people’s subjective preferences using fuzzy logic based on stakeholder interaction/feedback.
  • technical science stretch – new approaches will be developed, to cover the broad range of practical construction options to be considered in the big data optimisations.
  • Mātauranga Māori interfaces – this will be the first time globally that indigenous world views are incorporated into decision support tools using Construction 4.0. This presents a significant
  • challenge due to the inherent differences, in viewpoint and the practical challenges with codifying this data and resolving incompatibilities with prevailing approaches. This in itself, will transform the sector and make it more holistic.


It requires a global effort: researchers and industry leaders working together

The application of complexity science and Industry 4.0 in construction is an immature discipline globally with very few identified experts in Construction 4.0 research. Hence, a team of global experts in the component parts of Construction 4.0 (in terms of experience and skills mix) have been brought together and will use a complexity science approach. International linkages, industry linkages and linkages to existing research programs will ensure that the research program and project outcomes avoid redundancy and are international best practice. Experts in Mātauranga Māori and its interface with Engineering, as well as sustainability and resilience in the built environment are also key team members. Finally, we have also incorporated expertise in technology transfer in traditional industries, and public policy development to ensure that the project outcomes are both ready for adoption and readily adoptable.

The Construction 4.0 framework and guidelines developed in this project will manage complexity and reduce uncertainty; and enhance information exchange and communication between project stakeholders– to increase productivity and quality. This work will create a step-change in construction sector transformation, create jobs and upskill the workforce through innovation and/or digital literacy.

A core research theme will focus on technology transfer and policy development and implementation. This will ensure that the research outcomes are both adoption-ready and readily adoptable. The outcomes will be widely disseminated through published literature but also in terms of industry adoption and practice improvements.

We will have an overarching Industry Advisory Board, loads of industry outreach and mechanisms for industry engagement and input (stay tuned).


How has HERA been preparing for this project?

It has taken some deliberate actions to get us to a point where we be ready to lead this important project:

  • listening to our members and sector players to better understand the key issues and how these can be addressed through research;
  • developing HERA’s Industry 4.0 capability within our staff;
  • creating the Fab4.0Lab;
  • creating our Industry 4.0 cluster;
  • creating Industry 4.0 based productivity assessments for our members;
  • commissioning the BERL Construction 4.0 productivity report;
  • developing collaborative relationships with leading experts in the required areas;
  • identifying and developing relationships with new partners;
  • continuing the thought leadership; and
  • developing our appreciation of Mātauranga Māori (e.g. through weekly classes for all staff).


We know this is a big project and we are only just coming to terms with the fact that it has been successful in gaining funding! Our next steps will be to meet MBIE’s pre-requirements, negotiate the contracts with MBIE and all of our subcontractors.

As this is such a big, complex project, I am going to write a series of articles about the key project elements so our members have more details – so stay tuned.