As chief executive of global positioning technology giant Topcon Positioning Group, Ray O’Connor is a man who lives and breathes innovation. He tells Mark Hansford where he sees the global construction industry heading and offers insight on where the UK sits on the innovation scale.
Earlier this month 1,000 of the UK construction industry’s best and most forward-thinking clients, architects, designers, contractors and suppliers gathered at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel for the British Construction Industry Awards 2013.
The awards are renowned for the way they seek to showcase innovation and best practice in construction worldwide. Innovation and best practice is also at the heart of global positioning technology giant Topcon – it’s why it chose to become the award’s first ever headline sponsor. In the world of technology, there is no other way but to keep innovating. Just look at Apple – or Blackberry – for how to do it, or how not to.
So who better to grill over the UK’s attitude to pushing the boundaries of technology than Topcon Positioning Group’s chief executive Ray O’Connor; born and raised in Ireland and a man who lives and breathes innovation?
“I would say to you, if you went to the US, there isn’t any major earthmoving project going on without machine control.”
Honorary doctorates from the Dublin Institute of Technology (Ireland) for achievements in international business and innovation and the University of Naples (Italy) for industrial design for innovation give proof if it were needed, of O’Connor’s innovation credentials.
And from the outset O’Connor is clear on why technological innovation is so crucial: “The primary driver is population growth,” he states.
“We are seven billion people on the planet right now, by 2030 it is going to be nine billion. The infrastructure needs will be approximately $60t (£40t) by 2030. The available funds to support that will be less than half that amount. So in order for construction to meet the demands of the future we have to figure out how to fill that gap,” he states. “And that gap will be filled by technology.”
“And that’s where we see the opportunity – bringing technology to the market to allow contractors, and all trades, to do work more efficiently and effectively.”
For Topcon that means a serious investment in research and development. “We put close to 15% of our revenue into R&D,” he says. “That’s a quite substantial amount of the income of the company.”
Top of the agenda is machine control. Topcon has long set the standard of accuracy, durability, and upgrade-ability in machine control and the automation of construction equipment, and it remains central to its plans. “It’s the major area of growth,” states O’Connor. “It’s a massive change that’s been going on over 20 years since when GPS and RTK (Real-Time Kinematic) satellite navigation came along.”
And for O’Connor the reasons to go down the machine control route are obvious: “If you take the US, a contractor gets paid the same amount of money today to move 1M3 of earth as he was in the 1960s, so he must find a way to be more productive”
“So now you are seeing more manufacturers install our systems as standard equipment in the factory,” he says.
Machine control is clearly Topcon’s big thing, and it is a great example of where hurdles still have to be overcome for that best practice to become common practice in the UK.
“Change isn’t easy,” notes O’Connor. “Especially when you are dealing in an industry where every job is different, and where the question always is will something that works very well on one job work as well on the next job.
“But I would say to you, if you went to the US, there isn’t any major earthmoving project going on without machine control. If you went to Germany there’s no major earthmoving project going on without machine control,” he states.
But it’s not the case in the UK, where the strong role played by the rental market is a major factor. “It doesn’t necessarily suit the learning and adoption of machine control like in other markets,” admits O’Connor. “But there’s no doubt that market penetration continues to expand exponentially,” he says.
“In most regions, our machine control business is growing exponentially each year so the use of it is becoming standard. And like any technology that is adopted in one country, if there are huge benefits then it will be adopted elsewhere.”
Building Information Modelling (BIM) is another major driver for change in Topcon’s world. “On the BIM side of the equation you are starting to see us make instruments that really allow contractors to use the data on the jobsite and there’s a major push in that area,” says O’Connor.
“This will certainly help grow awareness and acceptance of automation on construction sites.”
That means making use of cloud computing to have real-time interaction with machines and surveying equipment and the project’s BIM model.
“The big push in the industry is going away from making products to [offering] solutions,” he emphasises.
“The software with our surveying equipment and our machine control equipment is all sending data into the cloud,” he says. “There is the ability now to have real-time data when the job is taking place – instead having to wait for engineers to make changes and get them to the job. There is a massive movement in that area and that wasn’t even possible five years ago. So you’ll see a big change in our industry with that.”
“On the BIM side of the equation you are starting to see us starting to make instruments that really allow contractors to use the data on the jobsite and there’s a major push in that area.”
One thing is for sure, major advances will be trialled, used, and taken as standard in the US before the UK. Or at least they will if the traditionally innovation-shy UK construction industry runs true to form.
O’Connor sees a real cultural difference here. “Absolutely, the style of the contractors is different. In the US, contractors are very aggressive. There may be rules and regulations that have to be overcome by using a new technology, but in the US they are typically more progressive about changing those rules. If they see a technology that allows them to do a job faster or with improved quality they will go to the local government and try to get the rules changed to allow them to use that technology. Europe is more conservative, and in Asia, even more so. So I think the adoption rate is quicker in the US for that reason.”
“I think more openness [is needed],” he says. “The idea of doing something new or unique that is in the benefit of both the client and the contractor… the drive to get that done more cooperatively seems to be a bit more subduedhere. The US is generally very quick to adopt those ideas.”
So what of the inherent reluctance of UK contractors to share their ideas for fear of being copied? “Business often has that element to it,” he says. “But I would say it should not be so much a concern because you just need to keep moving. A progressive contractor will keep moving. It’s the same in manufacturing. If we don’t obsolete ourselves, somebody else will.”
For those that do go progressive, the rewards are there, says O’Connor. “The emerging markets have so much to learn from our capability – there are huge opportunities for contractors from the US and Europe.”
Ray O’Connor biography
Ray O’Connor is president of the Topcon Positioning Company, one of three companies that form Topcon Corporation. He also serves as president and chief executive of Topcon Positioning Systems, a position he has held since 2002.
After joining Topcon in 1993 he led the growth of TPS through a pattern of strategic initiatives beginning in 1995.
He served as an executive officer of Topcon Corp from June 2008 to July 2010, managing executive officer from July 2010 to July 2012, and currently serves as senior managing executive officer.
Additionally, he has served as chairman of Topcon Europe Positioning. He currently is a director of Topcon America Corporation and Topcon Europe.”