Manufacturers should start seeing data about their products as an asset they can and should control. This was the conclusion of an international panel session at UK Construction Week in October. You can watch the session here and read a summary of the discussion in this blog post.

The session was motivated by a section of ‘Digitisation for Construction Product Manufacturers: a Plain Language Guide’ which looks at what manufacturers should consider when working with third party data services.

As manufacturers recognise the need for data expertise and demand for data services expands dramatically, what are the pitfalls that manufacturers need to negotiate if they are going to make wise investment decisions?

Our panelists were:

  • Paul Surin, Chair of Construction Products Europe Digitalisation Task Group & Global Built Environment lead at IBM
  • Patricia Massey, Digital Technology Manager, BEAMA
  • John Patsavellas, Senior Lecturer in Manufacturing Management, Cranfield University
  • Knut Jøssang, Product Manager Digital Solutions, Pipelife Norway
  • Jamie Mills, Global BIM Manager, Xylem Inc and BIM4Water, and
  • Su Butcher, Director Just Practising Ltd (chair)

The discussion wanted to dive deeper into the area of data security, ownership and control, and to do this we looked at five areas for discussion which should give you some areas for consideration:

Manufacturer data is an asset

Data Requirements

There are multiple requirements for your data. We are in the midst of the building safety pipeline which will include a new Building Safety Regulator and Construction Product Regulator, but there are a variety of other initiatives which require structured data, including environmental requirements, some of which are already in place. Manufacturers are already part of compliance schemes, and you are probably already providing information to a variety of third-party platforms. Managing your data manually is prone to risk and hugely inefficient.

Do you know who is going to need your data, and when they will need it? You probably don’t, so the panel advice is to position yourself to be able to answer any questions. Set in place good ontologies and classification systems for your data that enable you to find the answers when the questions are asked.

Data Ownership

Manufacturers need to treat data as a commercial asset, in the same way we treat our physical products as assets. Manufacturers are liable for their products, and they are liable for the data they provide about them. Ensure you have policies in place with third party providers to protect your ownership.

Patricia Massey explained that across the supply chain different actors will require different parts of your data, so manufacturers need to be the single source of truth for information about their products. You probably have many internal systems that do not talk to each other, so finding a single source of truth is difficult and we can often end up duplicating data which creates risk and lack of confidence.

John Patsavellas argues that the process of breaking down these siloed systems isn’t expensive, and when assessing the value of the process, you also need to be mindful of the risks to your business of providing unstructured multiple sources of data to the market. The plain language guide can help you take the first steps.

When Products Leave You

The panel then went on to discuss the challenge of the ‘wild west’ of product data, something that is discussed in the plain language guide.

For example, once your products leave your control, distributors and wholesalers may carry out white labelling, product bundling and substitution, sometimes switching naming conventions and replacing product IDs. All these activities create risk for the whole supply chain as well as manufacturers specifically.

Some organisations have already taken the fight to the distributor market and achieved change. Knut Jøssang described how distributors in Norway were using a single ID for multiple different pipe products. This helped the distributor with their logistics, but it destroyed traceability. As a result, manufacturers dealing with claims for failed products would often discover that it wasn’t their product causing the problem, but only once they had arrived on site. The products were also at times installed using the wrong product instructions. In Norway, pipe manufacturers have demanded that unique identifiers were provided instead, and collaborating with distributors, managed to resolve the problem.

If distributors are going to stop changing product IDs, they will need to rethink the business models which currently rely on them, but there are advantages to that. Distributors will benefit from better information flow themselves and can still add value via their unique position in the market, but they will need manufacturers to demand the change.

In 2016 the Construction Products Association published ‘The Future for Construction Product Manufacturing’ which sought to resolve these issues, reducing on-costs and leading to a more efficient supply chain that can meet the demands of output, growth and sustainability. The recommendations of this report were not implemented. Why not, and what can we do to move it along?

How to Structure Your Data

We describe in the plain language guide that for your data to have integrity it needs to be structured, secure, verified and interoperable. The data we are talking about is that which manufacturers are already very familiar with – the essential characteristics held in test reports, safety data sheets, enterprise and procurement systems, and the product properties you already provide to the supply chain.

We aren’t talking about sharing any new information which you don’t already share on your website, via email, brochures and presentations. No IP will be lost, you just need to organise and share the structured data in a digital format so that it is reliable, can bring you efficiency benefits and will make the process of working with your products so much easier for designers, contractors and clients.

Choosing which data you need to share for each product is simple; you just need to look at the information you already provide. This subset of data is known as a data template.

A data template is a standardised, structured set of properties that describes a product, system, assembly or other object with information that people can use to make value-based decisions. Anyone who makes the product will use the same data template, the same subset of data, to provide information about their products, which can then be reliably compared.

Many data templates have already been created. If your sector doesn’t have them you can work with your trade association to confirm the properties and their attributes. Jamie Mills describes in the video how the water industry began this process in 2013, which has made it possible for the whole UK water industry to use the same standard property names and descriptions, reducing waste across the supply chain. In the video Knut Jøssang also describes how PDT Norge is developing a collaborative approach to data template creation in Norway. We outline in the plain language guide on page 35 how your trade association can help you.

Technology and Third Parties

The panel concluded with a discussion about how to work with third party technology companies. Technology companies know a lot about tech, but they don’t necessarily know about information management in manufacturing or construction, or how your business works. With new startups entering the market and old-fashioned catalogue companies becoming ‘data focused’, manufacturers can easily be swept up into commitments that are expensive and don’t begin with your interests at heart.

Back in 2017 Construction products Europe identified 400 companies already offering data services to product manufacturers. How can manufacturers navigate this landscape?

When you think of your product data as an asset you own, it is important to invest in house in an understanding of your data rather than relying exclusively on third parties. This will enable you to understand the terms and conditions you are signing up to and ensure your interests are served.

Paul Surin pointed out the risk of working with a company with little or no experience of the different construction industry sectors, or whose service is not mature and who will use their customers knowledgebase to build their service, and the risk this poses to manufacturers.

John Patsavellas gave us some stark advice about not leaving the understanding of T&Cs to after something goes wrong, and about developing a digital strategy for your business. Parts of the wheel have been invented already and are ready to be used; don’t reinvent the wheel.

In the plain language guide (pages 32-34), we set out a series of questions you should ask third party technology companies so that you get the service you need with the right level of security and control. These include:

  • Choosing the right company based on their approach to development, maturity, and competency, including their knowledge of your sector area.
  • Issues of Security including the robustness of authentication and encryption processes, and the location of servers.
  • Resilience including plans for service outages, administration and protection of information if something goes wrong.
  • Ownership and control of your data, metadata and IP.
  • The company’s approach to interoperability, ensuring information you provide can be transferred elsewhere at no cost to you.
  • Data quality and liability issues.

Next steps – Review of Digitisation Initiatives

We hoped you enjoyed the discussion and would be interested in hearing your thoughts. You can:

  • Comment below with your perspective,
  • Contact us via sep@theiet.org, or
  • Join our LinkedIn group to discuss this and other aspects of digitisation for construction product manufacturers.

We’re in the process of writing a review of some of the industry initiatives related to digitisation of manufacturer information in the coming weeks. Are there any initiatives you think we should include in that review? If so please comment here, on the LinkedIn group or email us.

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