Similar to most of the traditional industries, construction is also coming across many problems like low productivity, increasing cost and labor shortage during its development. However, digitalisation and tech innovation have rarely penetrated the industry, making it one of the least disrupted sectors among others. Mckinsey & Company has ever done a productivity comparison between construction industry and average economy, resulted in a gap of $1.6 trillion per year, which is expected to be filled by construction technology (ConTech).
2018 has witnessed a drastic development in ConTech, especially in terms of the investors piling into the sector globally. JLL has reported a $1.05 billion investment from the first half of 2018, which is a 30% increase from same period last year. And for the entire 2018, just US alone has already recorded nearly $3.1 billion investment, more than quadruple comparing to 2017 ($731 million). Alongside the boost of investment, the number of startups, the adopted technologies, as well as the market-proved use cases are also growing for the ConTech ecosystem. ConTech is taking off, to disrupt the industry valued of $12 trillion in 2020.
In this article, I would like to briefly introduce ConTech innovations in 3 scales, from what is currently taking place to what might be happening in the near future.
Adoption of frontier technologies
What is the most popular frontier technologies nowadays? AI, robotics, AR/VR, IoT, drone... and the good news is, construction sector is now embracing them all.
The construction industry has started to see more AR/VR applications even from the early design phase. The famous Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo has showed its interest in VR for design simulation very early on. In US, the VR-enabled 3D visualisation is unified with BIM (Building Information Modeling) intelligence startup Revizto. Back in Asia, the Korea-based startup Urbanbase, is also aiming to provide VR/AR tools for architecture and interior design.
In comparison, the construction phase seems benefit even more from the frontier technologies. There are many use cases of loT especially for security management and workforce management. The new startup WakeCap (UAE) is one of them, which provides real-time tracking of workforce onsite via helmet. Moreover, robotics and drone are also playing increasingly important roles for onsite monitoring, with 360° reality capturing solution HoloBuilder (Germany) and drone-mapping and analytics solutions Propeller Aero (Australia) as two of the examples. Additionally, robotics has also led to plenty of initiatives to free human from construction work with functional robots, like Endless Robotics (India); or to protect human at construction work with wearable exoskeleton products, like Ekso Bionics (US).
Last but not least, we have to count the wide range of use cases of AI. Besides embedding in robotics, the use of AI is of great significance in, first predictive analysis with machine learning, which enormously improves the productivity by avoiding mistakes before it gets too late; and secondly project scheduling with auto planning, which eliminates the time waste in multiple-team collaboration.
On the other hand, the adoption of the technologies is not only limited to the new technologies to apply, but also refers to the enhanced adoption rate of the existing ones. Take BIM as an example. The classic automated construction tool, which is introduced last century, has gained a lot more popularity in recent years, particularly with government's awareness of its benefits in risk reduction and cost control. Many countries like US, UK, Russia, Denmark have obligated the use of BIM for government projects, while countries like Australia, Sweden, South Korea have mandated its use in place. And Singapore, which is working long towards smart nation, has even made BIM electronic submission compulsory for regulatory approval.
In line with the BIM adoption, Mckinsey & Company research has also found out an upward trend of market-backed use cases in ConTech, offering a solid indication that the new tech solutions are not only created, but also gradually accepted.
Integration of solutions
Jumping out of the individual technology itself, on a larger scale, let's take a look of the construction industry value chain as a whole.
By dividing the construction life cycle into 5 phases of design, pre-construction, construction, operation and business, we could roughly map the ConTech in the following way.
With the maturity of increasing number ofdigital solutions, there is also a trend of integration to be identified, such as workforce management onsite with collaboration management for operation, supply chain management with project scheduling, etc.
Looking closer at BIM again, it is far beyond a solution solely for design simulation, but to be seamlessly functional in supply chain management, collaboration management and document management throughout the entire construction life cycle. Recently, it is also not difficult to find new tech solutions integrated with BIM to provide even more advanced approaches. Above mentioned Revizto is a good example focused on the 3D design simulation with BIM. Another example is the Norway-based startup Imerso, which enriches BIM with field 3D scan data empowered by drone, laser scanning and mobile capturing technology, to create a digital twin, monitoring the construction process onsite, as well as analyzing the data ahead of risks.
The similar integration is also happening among new industry disruptors. The reality capturing platform HoloBuilder has lately integrated with the collaboration management platform Procore via RFIs and Observations, to better update the documentation with the real-time construction process.
This integration offers a great case of productivity improvement by linking the different parts of the value chain, and we would surely like to expect more integrations between solutions to create more synergies for deduction in time waste and cost waste, miscalculation and miscommunication during the entire construction process in the near future.
Zooming out for an even bigger picture of the tech innovation, there are a few sectors around construction: smart living, civil engineering, autonomous driving, etc. Given the close connections in between and the great driving-force placed by those more disrupted sectors, we have every reason to expect some even more cutting-edge solutions to come in construction.
End of 2018, Volve Trucks unveiled its first commercial autonomous solution, piloting six autonomous Volvo FH trucks to transport limestone over a five-kilometer stretch in a mine with both tunnels and outdoor environment. What it brought to construction industry is not just a possible solution that could be quickly tailored for construction logistics, but also a push for more integrated and efficient solutions for construction supply chain management and project scheduling.
When it turns to smart living, which is even closer to construction, the innovation it could drive will be much further from just a technology integration, to even conceptional changes pervaded from the very beginning of the construction work. For instance, the design work will have to take into consideration of the smart home solutions to be implemented later on, and the digital tools used for construction process could also be integrated with smart home control systems to manage building's entire lifetime; the material selections might give more weight to the energy saving solutions or renewable sources, and the energy control system will need to be part of the simulations during the design;and the modularity could go even further towards flexibility and dynamic to be adaptable to multiple needs of the users.
Speaking about which, I would like to mention another potential game-changer, which might completely alter the way how modern construction operates onsite, with the power of revolutionary materials science solutions, 3D-printing. Chinese pioneer Winsun has been dedicating to improve 3D printing techniques with developed construction materials, and its supported project "The Office of the Future" in Dubai has already claimed to be fully functional and inhabited. Together with the capability of implanting wireless sensor into the wall of 3D printing, it has huge possibility to turn the buildings into real smart buildings.
And now guess what is more mind-blowing, which is back empowering the materials science? Yes, 4D printing, which prints self-assembled programmable materials that could interact with world around it, thinking water pipes which could adapt itself for different flow rates, or roofs which could control the airflow. And this technology developed by MIT Self-assembly Lab, is stated to be uniquely useful in extreme building environments, such as, space.
Balfour Beatty has ever created a scenario of the construction site in 2050: 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 and 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 onsite machines, ensuring the build is proceeding to specification. The very few people accessing the site itself will wear robotically enhanced exoskeletons and will use neural-control technology to move and control machinery and other robots on site...
Can you see it coming? I can, but maybe a bit earlier than 2050.