In the last 150 years, the automobile industry has transitioned from simple wagons with gas engines to self-driving cars with voice recognition technology. In contrast, the construction industry has not evolved as much. Labor productivity growth in the industry is only at 1% a year, a shortfall compared to 2.8% for the overall global economy. Even with low productivity growth, the construction industry is resistant to change and adaption of new technologies. The main reason for such resistance is that practitioners are slow to adapt to available technology and often wait on competitors to take the first leap.
Fortunately, the stagnation is due for a change following the digital era and tech boom. Between 2011 and 2017, $10 billion were invested in the construction technology industry. Construction technology development takes a substantive amount of time and resources to evolve and come to fruition; however, it is crucial, especially for global projects, which face unique challenges in terms of productivity, safety, communications, and collaborations. In a way, those challenges themselves drove the construction and digital transformation to the new era.
The construction industry is one of the largest economic sectors, employing roughly 7% of the work-age population. A small percentage of productivity growth in the industry can potentially push the entire global economy to an upward direction.
Construction productivity improvement happens both on-site and off-site. The development of robotics and heavy construction machinery has improved the on-site productivity. A research study from the Massachusetts Port Authority (MASSPORT) has identified several different types of construction robots, including demolition robots, printing robots, bricklaying robots, welding robots, forklift robots, and roadwork robots. Drones, which became its own category of construction technology, are technically flying robots.
“We have used drones in applications to survey roofs or to get aerial photographs for marketing purposes,” said Toby Smith, senior electrical engineer and former BIM leadership team member of Affiliated Engineers.
Smith also noted using drones for the purpose of monitoring construction progress, documenting site construction activities, and detecting thermal issues within buildings.
Construction robots help the industry by filling in the skilled labor gap. They also have the advantage of being able to get to locations where humans cannot access and work longer hours without interruption. In the context of global construction projects, automation helps to ease the complexities of onboarding foreign workers given language barrier and culture differences.
Prefabrication is another relevant trend credited for increasing global construction productivity. In 2016, one of the world’s first 3D-printed office, Dubai Future Foundation (DFF), opened. It was prefabricated with concrete components that were 3D-printed in Shanghai. Prefabrication significantly reduced labor costs and construction waste.
The off-site technology integration in the construction sector started alongside the birth of modern computers. Gone are the days when blueprints were drawn on a blue paper with white lines. Building information modeling (BIM) and augmented reality (AR) technology enable construction stakeholders to visualize the intricate details of the project and spot errors and clashing at lower cost than post construction. Software companies also help the construction industry with non-design related tasks that optimize efficiency and, ultimately, productivity, including scheduling, submittal and change order management, and resource planning.
Lunch atop a Skyscraper gives most pause, even those without acrophobia. Fortunately, the construction industry’s safety standards have come a long way since the lead photo used with this article was taken.
Today, construction workers can detect safety hazards by GPS-embedded, wearable devices. Such devices can also track the biometric stats of the workers and send proper warnings for low heart rate, oxygen level, etc. There is a wide array of wearable devices, including wearable glasses, headsets, helmets, watches, and vests. These wearable devices share the commonality of integrating technological solution to existing construction gears, which improves site safety and reduces construction claims.
In the future, we expect to see more safety technology advances to go from concept to mature product. For example, traditional site walkthroughs will be replaced by virtual-reality (VR) walkthroughs off-site. Rob Bendix, design technology manager at Affiliated Engineers, mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the VR walkthrough trend since local and international travels now face health and safety restrictions. Enhancing safety is vital in global construction. In the U.K., the construction industry ranks third in terms of most dangerous industries. Construction safety management is exponentially more difficult for international projects due to unpredictability of the safety awareness of local workers, complicated labor structure, and high turnover rate. All the construction technology mentioned above can help improving those challenges international projects face.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. A construction project is a long-term process that involves multiple stakeholders for execution and decision-making. Clear and effective communication are key components to the success of a construction project. There are various technology solutions at our disposal to facilitate better communication during a construction project. Project management software uses “data dashboards” to share project information with relevant participants. While mobile apps were designed to track project schedules and equipment malfunctions. Mobile translator apps, whilst they were not made explicitly for the construction industry, they facilitate continuity of communication among team members who speaks different languages to communicate.
The software coding and automation feature enables practitioners to communicate quantitative languages between imperial and metric system easily. Matt Duffy, business development manager for building analytical software, IESVE, noted the relevance of the embedded unit transfer feature in their software to adapt to both the U.S. and overseas markets in real time.
With the invention of the internet, people can collaborate in a construction project the ways they can never imagine decades ago. Among all the technology advances that promotes collaboration, BIM remains center stage. BIM is the creation of a 3D model that hosts document management, coordination, and simulation of a construction project in one package. BIM differs from the traditional paper-based blueprint because it is a process instead of an end product. It enables an owner to visualize early concept options with the design team and helps different design trades to coordinate and avoid construction change orders. The abundant amount of data in a BIM model assists operation and maintenance activities post-construction.
“BIM has been a great visualization tool since a lot of people are not well versed in reading 2D construction drawings,” said Smith, when discussing the BIM implantation at Affiliated Engineers. “We use this daily as nearly every project is now required to be done in BIM, either by the owner or the architect leading the project.”
The global construction market is seeing BIM as a necessity. More than 20 countries have mandated or planned to mandate BIM in their federal projects.
The technology development also broadened the core collaboration to include those beyond the traditional AEC players.
“I remember collaborating with the local code officials and getting the code requirement built into our software,” said Duffy, recalling a memorable collaboration encounter coming from a software developing company’s perspective.
Are We Overly Optimistic?
Even though construction technology has revolutionized how a construction project is executed, we should not be overly optimistic and conclude that we have reached the acme of our pursuits. McKinsey & Company noted in an article in January 2020 that talent skill gap and software fragmentation are two ongoing issues that impact the development of construction technology regarding construction technology. Sanjyot Bhusari, principal of Affiliated Engineers Inc., agreed there is a skill gap for the current talent pool. Other practitioners, like Smith, believe the talent gap is multidirectional and multigenerational. More seasoned workers needed to adapt the digital tech era, and more novice workers need to learn trade skills through practice. He recommended pairing younger and older workers to facilitate knowledge and skill transfer, affording the industry the balance it needs.
Rob Bendix thought continuous education as the key, and practitioners need to constantly adapt to evolving technologies.
In terms of fragmentation issue, Bhusari thought that it’s okay to have fragmented solutions as long as they are built on common data models for data exchange.
“It is like how we have different apps on our phone,” he said.
Smith shared a different view on the fragmentation issue. He believed that there had been fragmentation issues for decades due to the design team and the construction team using different work practices and tools, some of which may be proprietary to a specific company. In terms of solutions, Bendix suggested that more requirement and regulation should be put forward to elevate interoperability.
Companies that do not adapt to technology innovation are destined to die. The industry is facing the inevitable trend of going digital and integrating technology to the entirety of the project life cycle.
Companies should leverage tools that increase productivity, promote safety, facilitate communication, and encourage collaboration. In doing so, the industry as whole will continue to charter new frontiers at the cross section of innovation and efficiency.
Melody Wang is a graduate student at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation of Engineering and Applied Science. This article was originally a part of her course work in International Construction Management.
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