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The construction industry is not known for its willingness to implement new technology but even it can’t ignore the wave of new technology flowing around it. As the abilities of artificial intelligence, drones, augmented reality, 3D printing and other new technologies continue to grow; it looks increasingly like construction is ready to open up to an era of tech disruption.
“The amount of disruptive technologies emerging for smarter construction in ‘pursuit of a better way’ is astonishing,” says Jon Harris, director of digital technology at Mace. More importantly, the construction industry seems ready to take the risk of investing in these new solutions on an unprecedented level.
“We’re a low-margin industry, which has led to a lack of investment in research and development (R&D) over recent decades, especially when compared to other industries,” explains Sam Stacey, director of innovation, industrialisation and business improvement at Skanska UK.
The construction landscape remains relatively unchanged, however. So it is a credit to the strength of the technologies on offer that we are seeing movement in this area – after decades of resistance to innovation.
“Design is heavily rooted in past experience and the latest technologies are viewed as risky and priced accordingly,” explains Mathew Riley, managing director of Ramboll UK. “Construction earns its money on a series of individual, mostly unrelated, projects with no incentive to invest in new ways of working.”
It’s not just the engineering firms that have been resisting a technology evolution but also their clients. Many might like to see more technology being used in the construction sector, but very few people would welcome extra risk and cost on their multi-million dollar project. Beyond the technology itself, disruption requires a new way of thinking.
“It’s the change in mindset that’s always proven to be the biggest challenge,” says Tim Chapman, director at Arup. “There are still many practitioners who want to protect the established ways of doing things, but the evidence from other industries where technology has taken hold is that soon it will be too big a draw to ignore.”
According to a new report from Raconteur, more than 60% of construction projects are now use building information modelling (BIM) and remote monitoring technologies. More than 40% are using drones, and 30% are using radio frequency identification (RFID) and robotics automated technology.
“There’s now a groundswell of professionals who realise technology can disrupt this sector, boosting flat-lined productivity and changing the way the industry works for ever,” explains freelance technology journalist Nick Easen.
Augmented reality is allowing workers to see through walls as well as into the future stages of construction. Cloud based BIM is enhancing collaboration. Drones offer real-time surveying and aiding in places too dangerous for humans. Unprecedented efficiency is being gained through Big Data. Wearable technology is revolutionizing worker safety; and 3D printing has the potential to automate the whole process.
Smarter construction can also build smarter buildings by bridging the divide between construction and operation phases. “The fundamental problem in the industry,” said James Lee during a Memoori webinar in April, “is a disconnect between [building] construction and operation.” But with the use of technology we can better incorporate smart features and end user preferences into the design stage.
Today’s technology is truly offering tangible benefits to construction projects and setting the sector up for a safer, more efficient and less human future. Technology “offers us the single biggest opportunity to mitigate the risk against a skills shortage across the industry, whether accessing a broader skill set in design or reducing the dependency for on-site labour,” says Ramboll’s Riley.
The mixed feelings in the sector are holding back its evolution however. For construction to see the potential benefits that technology offers, adoption needs to be much more widespread. “Adoption is the key to overcoming barriers in the construction industry and will require broad-thinking clients who actively encourage a better way of working for the overall benefit of their project and end-users,” says Paul Westbury, group technical director at Laing O’Rourke.
While these early steps are encouraging, only a collective attitude towards the introduction of such technologies will allow them to blossom within the usually slow moving construction sector. As Nick Sumption, industry innovation lead for i3P at Thames Tideway Tunnel, states; “many organisations have experimented with some of these technologies, but to achieve widespread adoption it requires a commitment to collaborative innovation.”