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GS1 barcode scanning on construction site with a mobile phone

GS1 to construction in collaboration

Author: Otto Alhava
Published: 9.12.2020

My home suburbs in Helsinki are not necessarily the hot news because of digital leaps, but nevertheless, the all neighborhood stores come with self service check-outs and automatized pick-up points. Covid-19 has sped up the change towards fully digital activities, for sure, but in these times of online purchasing, the differentiator that counts between different parties is the fast development of applications.

It’s become important to be able to select how you get your delivery from an online store because of the mobile application development. The competition will soon clear out a player that doesn’t put effort into digital information management or offer clients other options than collecting their heavy packages from a downtown store where you can’t even park. Comparing and selecting between online stories is so easy that a poor package deliverer makes customers look for their goods elsewhere.

We must define how to apply GS1 in the worksite environment and in relation to the supply chain.

It’s interesting to see that with the current logistic chain, it seems to be profitable to sell carburetor parts worth 4,79 euros from their country of origin, add their shipping fee, offer real-time monitoring and a possibility to change the shipping address during the delivery, and authorize the courier to drop off the package to a given location. It is obvious here that digitalization has enabled reducing the transaction costs near to a zero. But then – a direct cut to a construction site: flooring shipment for 240 apartment arrives unannouced two days prior to their delivery date and the truck driver and the site don’t speak the same language, let alone understand each other. The driver unloads the cargo, in a hurry, partially to the driveway, and the site management must command all men and women to carry the parcels inside to protect them from the weather. As the driver speeds away, the much needed copy of the shipment document falls to the muddy ground. Or, version two: an element shipment should arrive at 1 PM including elements 5,6,7 and 8. The shipment is nowhere to be found, phone calls start, the installation group loiters around. The shipment finally arrives at 3 PM including elements 6,7 and two other ones without any markings on their number, or, well, one of them has a note but no-one can read the handwriting. The situation is not clear to anyone, and so the rounds of figuring it out, trying to make sense of element cards and making endless phone calls starts.

So we can succesfully deliver a part worth 4 euros and weighing 20 grams in B2C commerce, but we can’t mark a 10 tonne element with a barcode or digital identification. Why not? How could we bring the benefits of global consumer markets to the construction sites? If everyone has a barcode reader – smart phone – in their pocket, then why not make use of it? Shared situational awareness in the supply chain would benefit all parties.

The good news is that the model for passing on the information already exists and it’s been tested on numerous industries. Its use is fostered by a non-profit organization, GS1, which has developed and standardized the current implementation of sharing, managing and using ID codes. For the construction industry, this brings an important, missing solution specifically to connecting the supply chain with the site, as GS1 offers means to identify products and building parts, automatize the supply chain, and transfer data in a structural way between companies.

If everyone has a barcode reader – a smart phone – in their pocket, why not make use of it at sites?

The first barrier, however, is that we’re missing a shared logistic model. If we keep procuring labor and materials like we always have, as a black box, we get as many logistic models as there are subcontractors at the site. Standardizing the industry is not a task for the subcontractors who operate on our sites, but instead, it is the responsibility of us main contractors. We must, in collaboration, go through the trouble of defining a more efficient way to operate. We must define how to apply GS1 in the worksite environment and in relation to the supply chain, because we decide which systems are used and we have ownership over the operational model and therefore also the process data. We are the key to start this collaboration towards a construction version of the GS1 standard.

We need also the prefabricators and material deliverers to partner up with us. Some already have experience on GS1 and all have already implemented their own data structures for managing the fabrication and deliveries in various systems. This is why there are so many different kinds of barcodes in the deliveries coming to the site both in fabrication and logistics. We need this information to flow all the way to the construction site so that we can forget about the confirmations on delivered parcels on paper, the spreadsheets, the phone calls and the constant unclarities and settlements. And this is important right now also because if we don’t do it, someone outside our industry will, and then we must adjust to using the GS1 for construction created for us, whether it supports our ways of operation or not.

In order for us to learn how to apply GS1, we must create a first prototype of the model with a prefabricated part, like concrete elements, and go through the results together. Next, we can make another prototype, say, with kitchens, and a third one with bathrooms and we keep learning more until we have enough understanding and know-how to declare GS1 a standard. The Norwegians have already started, and so have the Swedes. By working on this together we can create an application that crosses country borders. Standardization always creates common demand, so this would also speed up the servetization of our industry. I believe we all agree it’s an accomplishment for which the time is high.

Otto Alhava - author - Construction 2.0

About the author

Fira CTO Otto Alhava knows the challenges of the construction industry, as well as the ins and outs of Lean thinking, BIM and mobile tryouts, but instead of focusing on them he comes with a passion for developing the productivity of work and an in-built need to not just understand but also solve the productivity problem of the construction industry – systemically. His background in software and telecommunication businesses give him great basis for this, since the issues faced there are systemic in nature, as well.

Otto has a vision on solving the building productivity issue in collaboration, making construction sites of tomorrow a valued work environment and buildings valuable for their users, all with a reduced carbon footprint.

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