Technology

Willmott Dixon’s blockchain reaction

27 February 2020 | By Will Mann

On a quest for improved information management, Willmott Dixon is examining the potential of blockchain technology to help with record-keeping and supply chain payments. Will Mann reports.

The Hackitt report and its call for a “golden thread” of information about buildings may prove to be the wake-up call construction needed to get its data management in order.

And some built environment businesses are seeing not only the necessity, but an opportunity.

Willmott Dixon has recognised the growing importance of data and recently received funding from the CITB’s digital grant fund, to develop a blockchain technology proof-of-concept – which could transform its approach to information management.

“Grenfell and the Hackitt report, which was very critical of construction’s poor record-keeping, kick-started this,” explains Simon Tranter, Willmott Dixon Interiors’ head of sustainability and the company’s blockchain lead.

Understanding blockchain

  • A blockchain comprises records of information – called blocks – which are linked together using cryptography.
  • Each block contains information about transactions between two parties, including
    time and value, plus a link to the previous block.
  • Once information is stored on a blockchain, it is secure by design and cannot be altered.
  • A Blockchain is not a server for holding information; it is used for facilitating sharing of information across a business network.
  • Blockchains differ from conventional databases, which have access rights that need to be managed centrally in an organisation. A Blockchain allows information management to be decentralised.
  • Blockchain can store files in any format using a technique called ‘off-chain storage’.

“The industry is on a journey to improve digital methods of record keeping – making it easier to retrieve information relating to the assets it installs and certifies. Customers are increasingly asking for more critical information on safety and quality performance.

“We believe blockchain can help with that, along with BIM and other digital technologies. We are trying to develop our technical knowledge, understand what blockchain is and how it can work for our business.”

Blockchain is still an emerging technology that is not widely understood, certainly in a construction context (see box).

“We struggled at first to identify a business case,” admits Tranter. “But then we realised very quickly that the focus should be on what problems blockchain can solve, rather than the science behind how it actually works. There is plenty of technology you use in everyday life that you don’t understand, a microwave for instance, but you know its benefits and what buttons to press. It’s the same for blockchain.

“The key feature within a blockchain is immutability. Blockchain encryption means information can be recorded but can’t be changed. This makes it different to other platforms. With most databases, if you write a record, you can change it.”

Tranter’s pilot is concentrating initially on fire safety installations.

“The aim is to give customers certainty and confidence – so they know that the fire stopping and the fire doors that are supposed to be installed actually are installed,” he says. “We want to make that data transparent and available, linked specifically to the supply chain activity, along with an improved payment mechanism.”

Willmott Dixon is working with software company Automated Markets on the blockchain project.

“The idea is to store information about all goods, works and services employed in construction projects on a blockchain,” says Sam Gamble, Automated Markets CEO. “This is far too much to tackle in one go, so we’re focusing on fire management elements first. The aim is to prove some things about the technology applied to this problem, which can hopefully be used for a more general industry-wide application.

“It is important to note that when we say ‘blockchain’, we mean private, permissioned blockchains for business, not public chains such as the Bitcoin or Ethereum networks,” he adds.

The pair have been examining how the fire safety industry manages information, using software called Bolster, which integrates the installation, documenting and management of fire safety work in one application.

“Bolster collates all the information about products used, certifications, sign-offs, which is then available for the site personnel to view and sign off,” says Tranter. “We use a system that is similar, but there is much to learn from the fire safety sector in terms of how they record, manage and self-certify information.”

“There’s a clear benefit for the industry. We can spend less time quibbling over agreed works and spend more time on guaranteeing quality, which is relevant to all projects.”

Simon Tranter, Willmott Dixon Interiors

Gamble uses a fire door installation to illustrate how the blockchain technology would work.

“Willmott Dixon will have a design and place an order for a door,” he says. “That is stored on the blockchain, along with the price. The subcontractor then executes the work and puts in a valuation request. The contractor makes an assessment of the work, checking the quality, the specification of the door, documents such as fire certificates, the O&M information, and that data about the work has been gathered.

“And crucially, the surveyor can interrogate the work against what was agreed up front and recorded on the blockchain. Once the chain of information is complete, only then can the surveyor approve the payment.”

If the fire safety pilot works, Tranter believes the blockchain technology could be extended to the whole supply chain.

“It would provide clarity over the work to be executed, its status, when it is finished,” he says. “Subcontractors know the information is correct because once it is on the blockchain, it’s immutable and its provenance is recorded.

“This in turn could make the subcontractor payment process more transparent. The subcontractor is often buying materials on our behalf, which can make it difficult to manage information such as product specifications and compliance.

“There’s a clear benefit for the industry,” Tranter reasons. “We can spend less time quibbling over agreed works and spend more time on guaranteeing quality, which is relevant to all projects.”

Another benefit of the process is the capture of O&M information. “Currently this process is left till near the end of the build,” notes Tranter. “We’re looking at moving that up the process and making it a prerequisite for payment.”

But the main goal, he says, is to increase customer and public confidence that “we can deliver better buildings”.

“Using the fire door example again, if the customer wanted information about the products used and how they were installed, we would give them access through the blockchain,” Tranter explains.

“Customers worry that if there is a faulty component, that problem repeats across hundreds of buildings,” observes Gamble.

“An analogy is the car and white goods industry. It is very easy for manufacturers to recall products because they know what screws and bolts are in their products at the click of a button. We can’t do that in construction – because we haven’t yet developed the sophisticated systems that allow for timely and specific data retrieval.”

Which is where blockchain and better data management comes in. “Companies who get it right will have a competitive advantage,” believes Tranter. “Customers will recognise us for our good information management processes. There will also be business efficiencies, such as not spending so long processing payments.”

The proof of concept crunch will be “back end of the summer”, says Tranter, at which point he will present to the Willmott Dixon board. After that, it would be another “two to three” years to bring the product to market. “It depends on the benefits we can demonstrate – they have to be quantifiable,” says Tranter. l

Simon Tranter and Sam Gamble will be speaking about Willmott Dixon’s blockchain project on 21 April at County Hall in London and at the Digital Construction Summit on 3 June at the America Square Conference Centre in London. More details at www.digitalconstructionsummit.uk.

For details of Willmott Dixon’s Project blockchain and industry events visit https://www.willmottdixon.co.uk/our-approach/industry-leadership/-blockchain

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