2016 Engineering and Construction Industry Trends
Engineering and construction companies need better technology and a clear crystal ball to break out of the commoditization trap.
It’s easy to pinpoint why the engineering and construction (E&C) sector is in the doldrums. Demand has fallen significantly as the sudden collapse of oil prices in 2015 led virtually every energy company to slow down, postpone, or outright cancel major projects all over the world. Commodity prices have also tumbled, and the mining industry has reduced its capital spending considerably.
The deterioration of energy and commodities markets is in large part a consequence of the skidding economy in China, which had been a major driver of global economic activity and infrastructure projects over the past decade. Anemic and inconsistent growth in developed markets has been unable to make up for the Chinese shortfall and similar weaknesses in other emerging countries. Continuing global economic instability will almost certainly drive E&C sector revenues down in 2016 compared to the year before, stalling the recovery that had followed the previous collapse in spending in the sector during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
That’s not to say that there are no bright spots for E&C companies. In the U.S., construction starts were up about 15 percent in 2015 and are forecast to advance another 6 percent this year. Also, infrastructure spending has been neglected since the 2008 recession and some analysts believe that worldwide annual infrastructure spending will grow to more than US$9 trillion per year by 2025, from a little over $4 trillion now — that is, if the political will can be mustered to support much-needed improvements.
In addition to the fundamental economic stresses on the E&C sector, established companies face intensifying competition from firms in low-cost nations, which weighs on E&C profit margins and has driven many in the industry to commoditize their services. To make up for it, some E&C companies have turned to a mergers and acquisition strategy centered on acquiring companies offering promising new sources of value in new geographies, new lines of business, or both.
E&C companies must embrace technology and increase their strength in lucrative corners of the sector.
The return of lean times shouldn’t come as a surprise to companies in the sector. For many years, E&C companies have struggled to disentangle themselves from predictable cycles of growth and decline and to find paths to profitable and consistent performance. Success has been fleeting, but in our view that’s because E&C firms have not adopted strategies that directly address the endemic problems their industry faces. Indeed, to break out of this vicious cycle, E&C companies must do two things:
- Embrace engineering and construction technologies and specialization that lead the market, outpacing competitors.
- Read the tea leaves well to anticipate market volatility, and have a plan to maintain and increase strength in lucrative corners of the sector while making the most of commoditization.
The technology puzzle
In general, the engineering and construction industry has been slow to adopt new technologies; indeed, some firms are still using paper-based processes that can only be described as archaic. However, as a reaction to tight margins, a few E&C companies have recently automated and streamlined ways to carry out projects, not just in the design and engineering phase, but in construction as well.
Among the ways to cut costs, firms have offshored and consolidated design centers and adopted BIM (building information modeling) systems to automate much of the work of design and engineering and to supply critical information to workers on the construction site itself. Workers can also share information across project sites and send it back to the home office. These programs have reduced wasteful discrepancies and rework and boosted safety. Such technologies also let companies simulate the construction of just about anything before the project begins, instead of having to figure things out during the construction phase. Companies can perform detailed analyses of costs and scheduling as well.
The most cutting-edge firms are using 3D printing to produce components and drones to inspect sites.
In addition, advanced construction techniques that were pioneered in offshore oil and gas construction and in aerospace and defense, such as standardization and modularization, are becoming increasingly common in E&C. And the most cutting-edge firms are making use of newer breakthroughs such as 3D printing to produce components for modular construction and drones to inspect sites and monitor progress, quality, and safety.
Although these techniques have the potential to speed up the design and execution of projects and to lower costs considerably, they must be implemented as the centerpiece of a larger strategic platform. If they are not, the gains will dissipate within the ongoing commoditization of the services provided by E&C companies. Simply put, for E&C companies, the trick is not to delay the adoption of new technologies, but rather to figure out how to use these tools to differentiate themselves from the competition.
It’s a two-step process. First, the E&C firm must use collaborative technologies to develop a complete archive of every aspect of the engineering and construction process for current and past projects, gathering information from subcontractors and suppliers throughout the construction chain. The company can then leverage this data to provide its customers with a fuller and more transparent picture of the progress of their projects, and to do so nearly in real time. Second, having demonstrated to customers its ability to achieve better performance, better communication, and open interactions at lower cost throughout the project, the E&C firm will be positioned to outclass its rivals for future efforts.
With this strategic approach, E&C companies can win the volume jobs and use their skills with new technologies to profit from standardized projects, such as natural gas terminals, even as prices fall. And at the same time, they will be front-runners for more complex projects in difficult geographies, because their reputation for advanced capabilities will serve as a calling card.
Know your market
The E&C sector has been in the throes of consolidation for the past few years. Long a highly fragmented business, especially in design and engineering, the industry is finally shifting. Firms are now looking for greater value through acquisitions — they want to enter new geographic and vertical markets, to diversify or narrow their service offerings, to become more vertically integrated, and to boost their talent pool. The sheer number of deals remained high in 2015. There were few if any true megamergers; virtually all the deals involved big companies buying smaller companies to serve a particular strategic objective.
Sometimes expansion is the goal: AECOM’s 2014 acquisition of rival URS for $4 billion significantly enhanced AECOM’s global client base, primarily for power distribution and oil and gas projects. More typically, firms make acquisitions to target particular geographic markets. That can be risky — URS bought Flint Energy Services in 2012 to gain traction in western Canada’s oil sands region, a deal that might have struggled in the face of the recent collapse in oil prices. A further motivation involves buying another firm in order to gain entry into a particular services area, either to augment a company’s current services portfolio or to move up the value chain in search of less commoditized offerings.
As the talent shortage in the sector becomes more acute, E&C firms are also making acquisitions simply to build up their talent pools. This is particularly the case in construction, which is graying quickly and becoming more dependent on talent in specific locations. (Design and engineering, in contrast, have benefited more from globalization and technology, allowing firms to hire younger skilled people and put them to work anywhere in the world.)
Consolidation as a strategy, however, won’t succeed unless the engineering and construction firm understands its market well, to the point of being able to forecast growth areas that can be targeted better by an acquisition. Firms need to fully understand the markets they want to get into, the best way to get into them, and the particular differentiating capabilities those markets require for success. With that insight in mind, E&C companies can undertake acquisitions with a disciplined view of the skills they need and how they plan to use the acquisition to differentiate themselves from competitors. Acquisitions must be made carefully, with an eye toward how the combined companies are integrated and create unique value in the market. The deal must also complement the acquiring company’s current services portfolio, be accretive to earnings, and fit clearly into the growth strategy.
No matter what path E&C firms decide to take in order to escape the commoditization trap — whether through better technology, new geographies, augmented services portfolios, or fresh talent — success will be determined by those who can differentiate themselves from the crowded pack. Companies must ask themselves what their source of competitive differentiation is, what they do well, and what is no longer helping them. If they can’t answer these questions and then gain differentiation through new technologies, organic growth, or acquisitions, they won’t create value for their customers, or themselves. Differentiation means getting there first, and the coming years will soon sort out the winners in this race.