Though the technology (“tech”) movement has impacted many other industries, it has not yet fully reached construction. The construction industry is notoriously slow to adopt new tech, with many major firms still relying heavily on pen and paper.
But take a look around any major construction trade show and you’ll notice some optimists. Construction tech (or “contech”, as it is being called) is a rapidly growing field with a seemingly limitless array of applications. It’s safe to say that the construction industry has some catching up to do when it comes to technology trends, but there is no shortage of forward-thinking suppliers – both mature and in their start-up phase – who are ready and willing to help it get there.
The potential benefits of a tech revolution are massive. Globally, the average major construction project runs over budget by about 80%, and takes about 20% longer to complete than planned. Technology and automation could seriously bolster efficiency within the industry in a myriad of ways. In fact, solutions exist to improve productivity at every phase of the construction process – from conception and design through to engineering and building.
Though many of the trends on this list are not exactly new, we hope that they will make some serious strides in the new year. As awareness of tech solutions grows and economies of scale improve the cost-effectiveness of these tools, we will begin to see a more widespread adoption of contech.
There are many examples of robotics and unmanned machines contributing to productivity on the worksite. Perhaps the most well-known example is the drone. Drones are becoming increasingly popular on construction sites, especially as the cost of these tools has decreased.
Drones are used to survey sites for everything from measurements to potential hazards to progress tracking. Some users may leverage drone data to measure materials stockpiles, estimating value and tracking changes in volume over time. Using drones in conjunction with ground markers known as ground control points (GCPs), construction firms can map site measurements with 99% accuracy.
Contractors are also increasingly using single-tasks robots to automate repetitive, time-intensive, or dangerous work. These robots can reduce material consumption, eliminate human error, and increase operational efficiency. Examples include robots for grit blasting, rebar tying, welding, and bricklaying. In many cases, the robots can be programmed to run autonomously – but even those that require an operator can represent a significant reduction in man-hours.
While robotics can certainly automate a process, there are a number of other ways to bring automation to a construction site. Perhaps one of the best examples is in the prefabrication of building components.
The idea of prefabrication is not a new necessarily a new one. Prefabricated (or “prefab”) structures have been found throughout history, with some of the earliest examples still standing today. Where the industry has benefited from technological advancements is in the automation of the prefabrication process. Coupled with a challenging labour market, the improved efficiency and cost-effectiveness of prefabrication has led to a resurgence in the popularity of this approach.
The automotive industry perfectly represents the benefits of automation. Assembly lines revolutionized that industry, enhancing worker productivity, improving consistency and quality of the product, and reducing material consumption and waste. To some extent, those benefits have carried over into factory production of construction elements.
Also known as off-site construction or modular construction, prefabrication offers more flexibility when it comes to labour. It provides greater control and consistency than field construction, and in many cases can benefit a project’s budget and schedule.
Another example of construction automation is in the production of building materials. For instance, manufacturers of concrete products have increasingly adopted technologies to automate production and testing. Control systems and robotics can automate everything from mixing the concrete to performing vacuum testing for precast and ready-mixed concrete products. The result is a safer, more efficient, and more consistent production process that is far less dependent on human labour.
Though virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies have been available for a few years, we are just beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to leveraging these tools in the construction space. One reason VR is such a natural fit for construction is due to the use of building information modeling (BIM) to produce three-dimensional models of the finished product. Virtual reality provides the ability to immerse its user in the 3D model, allowing them to navigate and interact with the space and more easily identify potential issues.
It even enables greater collaboration, with team members on opposite ends of the country enjoying the ability to “walk through” a site together. Changes made to the 3D model can be assessed in real time, and designs can be shared with the client for instant feedback. Being able to spot potential issues before ever reaching the construction phase can mitigate unnecessary costs and project delays.
Where virtual reality can help you explore a simulated structure that does not yet exist, augmented reality is used to augment or supplement an existing space with the assistance of a mobile device. Being able to see a 3D model or proposed design within the context of the finished structure can assist with planning and visualization. As is the case with VR, the use of AR to model and visualize a finished project can help prevent costly changes at later stages.
Beyond that, AR technologies incorporating object recognition and mapping can capture data from the real world and allow us to manipulate it as needed. For instance, wearable AR technologies can measure the physical elements of a space, such as width and depth. That information can then be manipulated and used to calculate materials and determine other requirements.
This last construction tech trend is really comprised of several movements working holistically to produce a “smarter” job site. Concepts like the “Internet of Things” (“IoT”) and connectivity interact with tools like construction management software and communications devices to improve productivity and efficiencies on a project.
The IoT can be defined as a network of physical objects, or “things”, that are connected via electronics, software, or sensors to allow the exchange of data with other devices or the operator themselves. The amount of data being generated, captured and assessed across all industries is unfathomable. We are only just beginning to understand how to fully leverage all of the information at our fingertips.
When it comes to the construction industry, there are many implications. Connectivity and data are being leveraged to improve workplace safety and reduce incidents. By using sensors and tags on workers – often via wearable tech – and equipment, companies can prevent accidents and limit exposure of their workers to dangerous materials.
In fact, wearable technologies can offer a number of benefits on the job site. In addition to improving safety practices, wearables like Daqri’s Smart Glasses and Microsoft’s HoloLens can capture environmentally-based data and display it directly into the user’s field of vision. They also integrate another trend on this list – augmented reality – to overlay supplemental information, allowing their users to make smarter decisions and assisting with training.
Telematics sensors on construction equipment can facilitate the shift to a predictive or condition-based maintenance plan, versus repairing equipment only when it breaks down. The result would be fewer equipment failures and less down time. A 2015 McKinsey Global Institute study estimated that improved equipment maintenance as a result of the IoT could be worth over $360 billion a year.
Of course, connectivity must play a major role in making practical use of all this data. Globally, the construction industry remains one of the least digitized industries – but that is changing. There are countless software solutions that cater to the unique needs of construction companies. Construction management and modeling software can help digitize and streamline nearly every phase of a construction project and drastically improve oversight and collaboration. We are seeing increased adoption of platforms like Procore, Autodesk, and PlanGrid (acquired by Autodesk in 2018) to help construction firms of all sizes enhance productivity.
Though the construction industry has a reputation for being stuck in the past, it stands to benefit greatly from innovative new technologies. The initial investment in these construction tech tools is offset by increased efficiencies, reductions in overruns, and shortened timelines – not to mention significant improvements in collaboration. With projects becoming increasingly complex, it’s high time to explore the world of contech.
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