NCCR DFAB Alumni Survey – feedback for strategic development

The first internal survey of DFAB alumni from both research and the MAS programme was conducted in February, with the goal of informing strategic decision-making for the third phase proposal of the NCCR Digital Fabrication. Survey questions focused on work, technology transfer, collaboration and the pandemic.

The survey garnered 32 responses, with equal representation from academia and industry, suggesting NCCR alumni have moved into academic and industry positions alike, with 78% of respondents in Europe, and 16% now in North America. When asked what NCCR experiences best prepared them for their current careers, over half of respondents felt that prototyping/building and participating in large interdisciplinary research collaborations were the most useful. Regarding the role that academia should have toward digitisation in the AEC there was common agreement that academia should provide cutting-edge innovation in R&D (81%). When asked to name the most important driver of innovation in building and construction, respondents indicated process development and optimisation (31%), innovation demonstration (22%) and business practice (19%).

Academics: To date 18 NCCR alumni have now been appointed to professorships at universities around the world, and another 14 graduates have assumed senior research or lecturing positions. Five MAS alumni are now PhDs at ETH Zurich, and another seven are undertaking PhD studies at other universities worldwide.

Survey highlights:

  • Priorities: Academic respondents placed the highest value* on research and innovation, accomplishing demonstrators and having communication, leadership and collaboration skills for their careers. They placed least personal value on patents or licensed IP and attaining professional or additional certification.
  • Transfer: All academic respondents reported that while they personally place a (high) importance on knowledge transfer to industry, many perceive that their institutions do not prioritise transfer to industry as highly (35.3% not at all – somewhat important).
  • Publication: Academic respondents stated that printed publication of research (within academia or in the public sphere) is more important to their institutions, while they themselves more highly value invited presentations.
  • Collaboration: Collaboration and leadership skills are important to our academic respondents (89% and 94% very to extremely important, respectively), however they perceive their institutions to place less importance on these skills (58.8% and 52.9% very to extremely important, respectively).

Industry and Practice: Alumni in the business world included 16 who work in commercial industry, 10 engaged in architectural or design practice, nine involved in spin-offs or industry funded research, and three in technical consultancy.

Survey highlights:

  • Priorities: Practitioners placed a very high importance on staying up to date with digitalisation in their field (96% very to extremely important) and having an awareness of innovation trends (82% very to extremely important). Additionally, they reported that both they and their employers place a high importance on communication, collaboration and leadership skills.
  • Transfer: Practitioners were divided regarding the importance of collaborating with academia on R&D (52% not at all to somewhat important, 48% very to extremely important).
  • Publication: They were also divided regarding the importance of publicly publishing their research in any form.
  • Collaboration: Practitioners reported that both they and their employers place a slightly higher importance on collaborating on R&D with other industries/businesses than with academia (78.3% and 68.2% very to extremely important, respectively).

Pandemic: Most survey participants (68%) reported an increase of digitisation in their organisation during the pandemic, specifically with the use of remote collaboration, presentation and communications software. A majority of respondents believe that the pandemic will have lasting effect on the workplace, with decentralised work locations and reduced travel, while a minority also note an increase of BIM, 3D modelling and online project and site management tools for remote collaboration. The principal “hope” stated is that the companies that continue to invest in digitisation and sustainable design are able to reap their competitive advantages, driving further digitisation in construction industry. However, according to the survey response specific use of digital automation and digital fabrication has not seen a significant increase.

Survey Conclusions: Our survey suggests that NCCR alumni have found excellent opportunities for both academic and commercial careers in a wide variety of topics related to AEC. According to our alumni in industry, there is a need to promote improved understanding of digital fabrication, to better education personnel at all levels, and to support an improved adoption capacity with construction and industry partners. Based on respondent feedback and critique, the NCCR plans to expand engagement with industry, increase its focus on the current tools used in practice as well as practical solutions for industry, and better integrate research innovations into real construction projects. With such increased focus on collaboration, leadership, and knowledge transfer actions such as demonstrators, the NCCR DFAB aspires to continue improving the positioning of our participants toward achieving leading careers in both academia and industry.

* Respondents were offered a 5-point Likert scale: not at all- , not so- , somewhat-, very- and extremely- important.