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Five Questions for SPECTER Automation

WHU startup provides construction industry with innovative, digital solutions

The construction industry has a problem: it lacks digitization. It is the second least digitized industry internationally despite the fact that an extensive amount of data is created leading up to every project. This is where SPECTER Automation comes in. The young startup wants to digitally lift the construction industry into the 21st century. To this end, SPECTER Automation offers a completely new software solution that collects data digitally and clearly, provides all parties involved with the data relevant to them, and highlights inefficiencies and possible planning errors. SPECTER Automation was founded by Moritz Cremer and Max Gier from RWTH Aachen, as well as Niklas Beese, Emanuel Groh, and Oliver Eischet – all 2018 Bachelor graduates of WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management. SPECTER CEO Oliver Eischet gave some insights into the idea of the startup itself and the founding of the company in the following interview as part of WHU’s "Five Questions for..." series.

1. SPECTER Automation is based in one of the most poorly digitized industries in the world. The construction industry creates extensive data before every project, but it is often still traditionally found on paper and in files. Why is digitization progressing so slowly in this industry when it could have decisive advantages?

The slow pace of digitization in the construction industry, which actually ranks second to last in terms of overall degree of digitization, is an interplay of many factors, some internal and some external. One of the most significant aspects is certainly habit. Breaking away from existing processes and work methodologies is never easy - everyone knows that - and thus a hurdle for new, digital solutions which alter the existing rhythm. In addition, the construction industry, similar to other manufacturing industries, lives a very physical culture. We are dealing with doers who are used to "getting things done" and having something tangible in front of them. That makes it difficult for digitization to get its start. Finally, there are fears and prejudices associated with digitization, i.e., implementation efforts and the confrontation of the construction industry with a topic that is not part of the repertoire of a traditional construction company. Digitization, innovation experts, and software developers are suddenly expected to alter processes that have hardly changed over the last 100 years. What is already apparent here is that the construction industry needs solutions that are easy to implement, demonstrate the added value of digitization directly and tangibly, and inspire the industry's decision-makers and users. That's exactly why we spent over 15 months developing our software in close collaboration with the construction industry and continue improve our software with users on construction sites on a weekly basis.

2. Your company’s software bundles all the available information about the construction of any given project in a modern dashboard. This allows the decision makers involved to capture everything in a clear and time-saving manner. How is the wealth of information compiled and how is it then prepared individually for the relevant parties?

Our innovative dashboard is characterized above all by the fact that it is technologically flexible and extremely intuitive to use thanks to its user-centric development. We link all data points to the 3D model of the planned building - the digital twin, so to speak. By integrating schedules, calculated costs, and efforts, as well as linking further files such as plans and photos, we enable a 4D, 5D or X-dimensional extension of the 3D environment. Although the technical implementation is very complicated, our software is easy to use: by clicking on each individual component, for example a wall, all the steps required for this segment of the project are listed with the corresponding material quantities, planned costs, and planned working hours. The user can use drag & drop to create a to-do list for the construction site within seconds and share it with subcontractors. For project management, business unit management, owners, and other stakeholders who are mostly not on the construction site, we can prepare information such as construction progress through individual views or reports.

3. You also use artificial intelligence and drones to monitor construction projects. What advantages and new insights does this modern approach offer?

We have used the application of drones as a proof of concept several times for the creation of a 3D model of the construction site. The ulterior motive here is that we can automatically match the BIM model, i.e., the digital twin of the construction object, with the construction site 3D model, which is created using a point cloud. Due to our focus on shell construction, we can thus quite easily record construction progress, or match it with the progress already recorded in SPECTER via the weekly planning of the construction site. As a consequence thereof, the photo documentation of the construction site can also be largely automated. In the future, a number of other use cases are conceivable, including material tracking by means of computer vision.

Artificial intelligence will play a much more important role for us in the medium term. Our vision is to fully map the processes on the construction site and identify optimization potential. Currently, 33 percent of all activities on the construction site are "waste", i.e., non-value-adding activities within the context of the LEAN philosophy. These include, for example, downtime, the search for and transport of materials, and rebuilds as a result of errors. The potential efficiency gains in the 144-billion-euro German construction industry are therefore immense, and we are only talking about Germany here, although the problems and data bases are almost identical worldwide. That is why we are already collecting enormously valuable process data with every application of our software on construction sites to streamline and optimize processes together with construction companies.

4. How has your idea and your startup been received in the business world and in the construction industry so far? Aren't you entering a largely untapped market with your concept?

When we first took a closer look at the construction industry last summer, we honestly weren't aware at all of the relevance, reach, and attention that construction currently enjoys. The ConstructionTech scene likes to be compared to the situation of the FinTech industry from about ten years ago and is gaining a lot of importance, especially since the start of Covid-19. For us, this is reflected not only by a high level of interest on the part of investors, but also by successes at startup competitions and a variety of funding programs. However, the construction industry itself also seems to be in an optimistic mood at the moment and is looking for suitable solutions for data-driven construction. Especially with our focus on data - which we collect in the background by using our software - we are able to attract many interested parties. However, the most important thing for us is the feedback from the construction sites themselves. We invest an incredible amount of time in the joint further development of the software with its users and are currently on construction sites twice a week per project. This user-centricity and validation of features across different construction companies with different levels of digitization allows us to ensure that our product development is maximally effective. This has allowed us to quickly reach the stage where users can enjoy the benefits of our software, and we have now gotten to the point where construction managers and foremen want our software for subsequent projects as well.

5. To what extent did your experiences at WHU influence your courage to found a startup, and how did your cooperation with your fellow founders at RWTH Aachen come about?

Niklas, Emanuel and I come from entrepreneurial families and were thus confronted with the topic of entrepreneurship very early in our lives. However, our parents and grandparents naturally practiced a very different form of entrepreneurship than is common for startups today. But even with these family backgrounds, we can say very confidently that we probably would not have founded SPECTER Automation without studying at WHU. The startup spirit, even in the early Bachelor's semesters, the unique startup network of alumni, and the support provided by the new WHU Summer Accelerator program have created exactly the right conditions to become entrepreneurially active.

Our team of founders is completed by Max and Moritz, both alumni of RWTH Aachen University. Max and I have known each other since kindergarten - we both come from a small suburb of Aachen and have known each other for over 20 years. However, when we were talking about startups at a party among friends in the summer of 2020, we could not have guessed that less than a year and a half later we would close a pre-seed funding round and test our software in several pilot projects with a wide variety of construction companies.