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A disruptive future

03.09.2017 | News
Interview with Werner H. Bittner, member of Doka Ventures' executive board.

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Doka Ventures’ recently appointed chairman of the board of directors of the Contour Crafting Corporation, Werner H. Bittner, shares his insights into this sleek, lightweight subsidiary of the Umdasch Group, designed specifically to implement

As a member of Doka Ventures’ executive board, could you tell us the motivation behind the company’s establishment and its main objectives?

The starting point was the establishment of a strategic business development within the Doka Group and the decision to form a new subsidiary of the Umdasch Group. Officially the company was founded in late November 2016, but we decided to start with operational activities as of 01st January 2017 for practical purposes.

The reason why Doka Ventures was established as a separate entity is very easy to explain and is fortunately something our owners understood and supported from the beginning. The problem is if you have an established organisation such as Umdasch Group, which incidentally celebrates it’s 150th anniversary next year, it becomes difficult to gain a focused perspective on new areas that require quick decisions in order to take advantage of the windows of opportunity that are synonymous with disruptive technology. As such a decision was made by the owners to establish Doka Ventures as a third separate entity. We have direct access to the owners when we need to and we have a very streamlined operational team.

Doka Ventures announced its purchase of a 30% stake in Contour Crafting, the U.S-based tech company focused towards disruptive technology within the construction sector, in particular 3D printing. How important will 3D printing be in the future of construction, and how long before the industry at large will embrace it as a replacement to traditional manpower?

I think 3D on-site construction printing will be an additional method of construction in the beginning. As time progresses, it could be used for more and more applications, however, as of now, I don’t think it will substitute everything. Firstly, I don’t think everything will be able to be printed. Secondly, the future markets will be so huge that you cannot possibly cover the entire market demand in the next 20 - 40 years by just one technology. If we bear in mind that we will have a very dramatic increase in global urbanisation, from around 52% to 85% by the year 2100, we will need a lot more homes and infrastructure. The problem is, we have only 80 years to accomplish this. Additionally, the global population will further grow to 11 billion during the same period, so that’s a double self sustaining issue that will place a lot of pressure on the construction industry. Moreover, the industry is very under industrialised, which is a huge problem. On the other side, there is a great opportunity because the potential is obvious. A deployable 3D construction printer could complete many structures; however, I don’t think 3D printing will be the answer or the solution for everything in the future.

On the subject of transition, it is widely regarded that the construction industry has been one of the most under developed sectors in the past forty years, when compared to other major sectors such as communication, finance and entertainment. Which areas of the construction industry do you believe offer the most room for improvement, and how will Doka Ventures contribute towards these changes?

Disruptive technology always has a starting point. If I were to look at Contour Crafting, our focus in the first year has been directed towards social housing and disaster relief. Why? Because there is an increasing demand and the required level of sophistication is not too advanced, which is good when one is introducing a new technology.

Social housing is another area where Doka isn’t very active, so we are not taking away anything from our formwork sister. As the functional ability and the capability of our robotic systems increase over time, we will aim to achieve turnkey solutions for houses within the next few years. Then of course we want to go into higher buildings and more sophisticated buildings. The disruptive part of the technology is the dramatic decrease in build-time, the lower cost and the complete freedom of design that 3D printing offers as well as very high work safety element due to automation. In addition, there will be no dust and hardly any noise. The question I get most frequently is what happens to all those construction workers? Well, in reality the same thing that happened to our agricultural workers years ago. If I look at Austria for example, over 100 years ago, approximately 70% of the population worked in agriculture. Nowadays perhaps that figure is about 3-4%, mainly due to automation. So, this has happened repeatedly before. The ongoing trend is that the demand for unskilled labourers will also go down in the construction sector following increased industrialisation of construction processes. Most definitely, in the 3D construction printing sector as you only need a couple of operators in order to supervise the process once a turnkey level is reached.

One typical association with advanced technology can be cost. Do you have any concerns about ensuring your products and systems are economically viable, and will your technology be accessible to the poorer developing markets?

We believe it will be. For the simple reason that one saves a huge part of all personnel cost. One dramatically saves on time because an average house will be complete in only a few days. We talked about beginning with social housing and disaster relief. In the next two to three years, we can certainly envision building a regular high standard home. Of course, time is money, I cannot give you exact figure because that depends on the specific project, but from a logical standpoint, one can easily derive that it is going to be much cheaper. Lack of waste is another benefit. There is also far less noise involved as the robotic system is very quiet. As mentioned earlier you have almost 100% safety because it’s an automated process. Typically, as an example in the automotive industry, an easy way to eradicate a problem in the production line is to automate the process. Human error in most cases is the problem. If you have a robotic system, it means a dramatic reduction in work accidents and errors.

Construction is often cited as one of the leading industries associated with environmental impact. In what ways is Doka Ventures working to ensure a more sustainable approach to construction?

If we talk about the industrialisation of construction processes, and that is our big headline at Doka Ventures, we automatically talk about efficiency, productivity and optimisation. This typically also means a significantly improved ecological imprint. Overall, such technologies should reduce emissions and hence be much greener, in all possible ways. Building Information Modelling (BIM), automation and digitisation will also enhance urban mining and other aspects of sustainability regarding the construction processes.

As someone with extensive experience in the industrial sector, what is your vision for Doka Ventures, and where do you see this arm of the Umdasch Group in ten years from now?

The company has one top goal and two tasks which are derived from that. The first goal and probably the number one task is to evaluate everything that is going on with this planet where potentially disruptive technology in holistic building processes is concerned. When we talk about building processes we do not talk just about building execution. We are looking at the full life cycle. Starting with the idea of something, the subsequent planning, the construction itself, the operation of space and infrastructure, and finally its demolition and recycling. Everything that disrupts either the full process chain or parts of the process chain is within the scope of Doka Ventures; therefore we have a lot to do. We constantly look around, evaluate things, come to an educated opinion and decide whether we should get involved or not. For this, we gave ourselves a couple of rules. To us a possible solution is only a real solution if it could be a global solution. Hence, we do not jump to regional solutions because we typically want to engage our solutions globally.

Once we have decided something indeed is interesting we have two options. Firstly, and let us take the Contour Crafting case as one of these, we have a disruptive technology as well as a company in place and we do not think we could do it better ourselves. In such a case, we try to get involved as a strategic shareholder, as to Contour Crafting we are the lead administrator after the inventor himself. Moreover, Doka Ventures is here to stay. We do not have an exit strategy in mind like a venture capitalist, so our task is to come, stay and help this company and make it a global success. That is the reason why we also invest in personnel resources. For example, I am the chairman of the board of directors for this company and we also are about to install the chief financial officer (CFO).

In the second case, we will put together a Doka Ventures project team, purchase some knowledge and knowhow from various sources and develop to our own solution in terms of experimental product, process and business model innovation. If this leads to a success and market fitness can be soundly assumed, Doka Ventures spins this project off into another sister company of ours. Why? Because we think every organisation or at least every innovative organisation which is burdened by an operational business loses its unique character.

We have had a tremendous amount of support from the owners so far. As someone who has already worked for both PLC’s and privately owned companies, I feel the privately owned companies are better because they have the potential to react much quicker. To act quickly is key if one intends to tackle potentially disruptive issues. In a publically owned company, you have to validate your decisions in great detail and go through much authorisation.

We at Doka Ventures always intend to make a conscious decision whether we are embarking on certain potentially disruptive technologies or not. Making conscious decisions is good because one avoids the surprises. However, it is not a guarantee that ones decisions in hindsight have been correct, but that’s life. Our key business is potentially disruptive technology, which is the highest level of risk, but also the highest level of rewards.

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