Construction sites get a tech upgrade
"In the not-so-distant future, concrete buildings may self-heal cracks in their walls with bio-concrete, while robots lay bricks and tiles."
Innovative technologies such as these are disrupting business-as-usual on construction sites as industry dynamics force construction companies toward a more tech-efficient future.
The construction industry has been slow to adopt the technological advances that have nearly doubled manufacturing productivity over the last 25 years. The labor pool is shrinking, dropping 23 percent since 2007. Meanwhile, costs for steel, cement and lumber are rising, with construction material costs up 10 percent over the past five years.
Investors and industry heavyweights see an opportunity to shake up the status quo. Nearly $10 billion in investment funding has poured into construction-technology firms over the last six years.
“Innovation is the answer to so many of the construction industry’s challenges, from addressing safety concerns to helping plan for the future,” says Todd Burns, Americas President, JLL Project and Development Services. “Robotics, cloud technology and augmented reality are re-writing the rules of the game across every industry. Construction leaders are recognizing their force and finding unique ways to adopt these technologies.”
With worker safety top of mind, construction firms are rapidly deploying products that help prevent accidents and injuries. Smart helmets are taking the traditional hardhat and turning it into something beyond physical protection, detecting everything from the onset of carbon monoxide poisoning and signs of drowsiness, to indicators of heatstroke such as elevated temperature and heart rate.
Robotics offers another level of safety and efficiency. “By delegating more dangerous tasks to machines, we unlock the potential to improve safety and reduce injuries, in turn freeing up human workers to focus on cognitive work,” remarks Burns. “In the future, we’ll likely wonder how we got along without robots.”
Automated robots are proving their worth in handling repetitive, highly detailed tasks such as brick-laying and beam construction, and even robotic arc welders. Delegating repetitive or physically challenging tasks to robots can provide some relief to the industry’s labor shortage challenges.
Yet the robotics revolution won’t happen overnight. “Technologies can take up to 5-7 years to become commercially viable and 20-25 years for broader market uptake, and we’re still in the very early stages of robotic construction prototyping and testing on the construction site,” according to Dr. Andrea Chegut, Director of the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab. She sees big potential for robotic form construction in the aftermath of natural disasters. “As we see so many buildings demolished from the recent wildfires in California and hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Houston, it’s clear we need to come up with technology solutions that can help to rebuild more quickly,” she adds.
Automation has its benefits off the construction site as well. Paperwork consumes substantial time and resources, especially on large construction projects with a massive web of contractors and team members. Unified communications systems can streamline the flow of work and information sharing. Cloud and mobility solutions are reducing time behind the desk, providing architects, designers and contractors with access to the same information whenever and wherever they need it.
At the same time more sophisticated planning tools and predictive analytics are generating richer insights about the potential outcomes of different scenarios and how costs may change as new developments arise.
Business information modelling (BIM), for example, offers a 3D view of an object and folds in information about building structure and space estimation, facilitating communication and coordination with all stakeholders with the help of site reporting apps and virtual and augmented reality. It also enables builders or designers to anticipate construction problems or cost overruns before they happen. More advanced BIM can offer additional dimensions, integrating data such as timing and scheduling, cost estimations, and building maintenance after construction.
“Escalating materials costs are forcing the industry to ask: where else can we lower costs?” says Burns. “Labor costs aren’t getting any cheaper, so finding ways to work more efficiently is critical.”
Technology can also improve inventory control and manage material costs. Tools equipped with Bluetooth technology allow contractors or workers to pinpoint the exact location of a product in the sea of tools on a construction site. And innovative new construction materials, such as bio-concrete that uses limestone-producing bacteria to self-repair cracks, provide another avenue for long-term costs savings.
While no one can predict the future, technology is bringing construction professionals a step closer to seeing what it might look like. Helmets that use augmented reality (AR) superimpose images onto a screen to show contractors and construction workers where water pipes need to run, or provide specifications for a room that’s being framed.
Smartphone tech is also catching up fast. “Changes are coming with the introduction of the iPhone X,” says Dr. Chegut. “Imagine being able to hold up your phone at a construction site and see a 3D augmented reality virtualization in front of you. The use of augmented and virtual reality in real estate is happening today and will only continue to grow.”
Indeed, the potential for advanced technologies to transform the construction industry is great, but Nicolas Bolland of the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab points to several obstacles standing in the way of widespread adoption. “Many built products are bespoke, which limits standardization and mass production,” he says. “The resulting lack of task repetitiveness prevents continual improvement, which in turn limits productivity increase.
“In addition, zoning and construction regulations lack geographical harmonization, which is a big problem for prefabricated construction and mass production in general. And they are updated infrequently; this can effectively block the spread or adoption of disruptive technology,” he adds.
Bolland also observes that fragmentation of the industry makes it difficult for small-players to invest the substantial front-end investment for new innovations without the necessary long-term pipeline to guarantee they will recoup the cost.
For companies that can overcome these barriers, the future is bright. “Technology won’t magically reduce costs overnight or erase the uncertainties inherent in construction, but it’s slowly transforming the business,” observes Burns. “Testing new technologies will be critical to staying competitive and profitable.”