Is the construction industry due a complete re-build?

17 Apr 2018

Is the construction industry due a complete re-build?

With long-standing resistance to change and low productivity, the construction industry needs to urgently embrace new technologies. In the first of a two-part series, Jonathan Arnold explores the issues, and the opportunity to reboot an often conservative industry.

A recent survey by Balfour Beatty, one of the world’s leading construction groups, offered a dramatic vision of the future.

“The construction site of 2050 will be human free. Robots will work in teams to build complex structures using dynamic new materials. Elements of the build will self-assemble. Drones flying overhead will scan the site constantly, inspecting the work and using the data collected to predict and solve problems before they arise, sending instructions to robotic cranes, diggers and automated builders with no need for human involvement.

“The role of the human overseer will be to remotely manage multiple projects simultaneously, accessing 3D and 4D visuals and data from the on-site machines, ensuring the build is proceeding to specification. The very few people accessing the site itself will wear robotically enhanced exoskeletons and use neural-control technology to move and control machinery and other robots on site.” (Balfour Beatty, Innovation 2050 - A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry, 2018)

Major shake-up

Balfour Beatty’s view of the future might seem fanciful, but many of the industry’s leading figures believe the construction sector has remained stubbornly resistant to change for decades, if not centuries, and is ripe for radical change.

The arrival of revolutionary technologies means the entire industry is set for a major shake-up. It will impact everything, from productivity to talent to on-site construction methods.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum is clear on what these changes will mean for the industry.

“Wherever the new technologies have properly permeated this fragmented industry, the outlook is an almost 20% reduction in total life cycle costs of a project, as well as substantial improvements in completion time, quality and safety.”

Faster Pace

Mark Reynolds, CEO of Mace, the $2.5bn international consultancy and construction business headquartered in the UK, is clear why action is needed now.

“We are quite simply not keeping up with the pace of technological change. Advancements in robotics and automated manufacturing, data analytics and virtual reality are radically transforming the sector and, indeed, the whole economy. Yet all is not lost.

“The fourth industrial revolution could improve productivity levels in construction, increase the number of highly skilled jobs and transform the way that the UK delivers some of the biggest and most complex infrastructure projects of the future.

“New and evolutionary infrastructure projects are vital to creating a favourable environment for investment, so important particularly in times of political and economic uncertainty. New construction technologies may also contribute to solving the housing crisis, which is arguably the single biggest social policy challenge facing the country.”

A better view

Some enlightened players in the wider industry are already grasping the technology nettle.

Last year, John Deere, the US equipment manufacturing giant, partnered with drone technology start-up Kespry. The deal means John Deere’s sales teams will sell drones and related services to the construction industry.

One of the ways drones can help construction workers is by flying over their construction sites while taking pictures. These pictures can help construction workers keep tabs on their productivity, track their materials and monitor how their projects are coming together.

Creative emphasis

One person who believes AI is going to be the “big disruptor” and that it will “affect the entire architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector” is Hugo Blasutta, President and CEO of WSP Canada. His company is a global entity with 36,000 employees in 40 countries worldwide and provides management and consultancy services to the built and natural environment.

He explains: “A lot of work is going on concerning field assembly through robotics and AI. If I break down our business and take a typical project in a typical engineering firm, around 80% of the work tends to be fairly repetitive and around 20% is unique and where you really want to apply your creative skills.

“What ends up happening in the average firm is that they spend 80% of their time on the repetitive work, because they don’t have the AI in place or processes in place, and then run out of time to work on the creative part. What we’re doing and where AI will help is to flip that around. 20% of our time on the repetitive work, and then use AI on the creative side of the business.”

AI will, he adds, allow for more “iterations of creative designs” so that what the client sees is more options, fully-thought- through, to select from. It’s ‘value added’ in a way not seen before. Adds Blasutta: “Deploying AI on the creative side will enable us to test different options much faster and deeper with more meaningful analysis.”

Beyond digital

David Cox, Managing Director for the Middle East and South Asia at Mott MacDonald, the global engineering, management and development consulting firm, reckons that the pace of the construction industry’s digital adoption is increasing exponentially and “technology will ensure that we adapt even faster in the future”.

He explains: “The period between industrial revolutions is contracting, so we must be prepared not only for the ongoing digital revolution but the machine one that will follow. We are already adopting technology to enhance our long-term and imaginative solutions and service offerings to our clients through the application of Building Information Modelling (BIM), generative design, and design for manufacture and assembly (DFMA). And we are exploring the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

In the next article in this series, we explore how computers are taking the drudgery out of engineering work, and investigate the talent challenge facing a rapidly-evolving construction industry.